Is virtual currency the future of how docs get paid?

A number of medical professionals in the United States now take payment by Bitcoin. Yes, that Bitcoin--the controversial peer-to-peer open source digital currency network tech blogs constantly cover, with crashing and surging value.

Healthcare IT News talked to a few physicians who are interested in accepting Bitcoin from patients or already have done so.

For example, Paul Abramson, M.D., of San Francisco, founder of My Doctor Medical Group and a former software programmer and electrical engineer, said his interest in privacy got him into Bitcoin. The currency does offer some privacy protections that regular transactions don't, but not as many as Abramson originally thought. One definite privacy protection is that using Bitcoin takes transactions out of the hands of credit card companies, removing their access to protected health information (PHI).

Still, using Bitcoin is "umagical" and simple, Abramson said. "It's not actually that big of a deal."

John Gomez, M.D., medical director of RapidMed Urgent Care Center in Lewisville, Texas, told Healthcare IT News that none of his current patients use Bitcoin for payment, but they are showing interest.

"It is an abstract concept at first," Gomez said in the article, but "it's really no less foreign than the idea that swiping a credit card is a functional stand-in for exchanging dollar bills."

The dangers of using Bitcoin are plenty, too--in November of last year, a Wired article profiled CoinMD, calling it "the absolute worst place to spend your Bitcoins."

Such a service could gain from medical students in need of some extra money. However, there's a catch. "I would never recommend this site to a patient because it's not done right," Iltifat Husain, M.D., the founder and editor-in-chief of iMedicalApps, said about CoinMD to Wired.

Virtual currency websites like CoinMD could give Americans better access to basic medical care--as researchers recently found the economy and reduced personal incomes could be the reason many Americans are more reluctant to get routine treatment.

"The global economic crisis weakened national economies and household finances globally," Annamaria Lusardi, Ph.D., from George Washington University, said in a research announcement. "These economic conditions can have effects in many areas, including health." Being able to check symptoms on a Bitcoin site might be attractive to someone without the time or money to visit the doctor.

Physician payment has been the source of dispute for years. Physicians are at risk to lose payment for care they provide to patients insured under new health exchanges during the latter two months of a three-month nonpayment grace period allowed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

In response, physician groups have deplored CMS to provide them with real-time data about patients' payment/delinquency status as part of the eligibility-check process, American Medical News reported.

To learn more:
- read the full Healthcare IT News article
- read the Wired article