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They let sick patients keep their germs at home, rather than bring them to an office.And doctors in some specialties, such as plastic surgery, use the technology to extend the reach of their practices by having e-consultations with patients in far-away cities.

While the pros and cons of video-chats are debated, one thing seems certain: With technology creeping into more areas of our lives, the number of people making such appointments will only increase.On the rise It's hard to quantify how many doctors now use webcams in their practices, because no agency tracks or requires doctors to report webcam use, said Gary Capistrant, senior director of public policy at the American Telemedicine Association (ATA).But "it's absolutely increasing," Capistrant told My Health News Daily, "and now that you've got those 4G phones where you can videoconference from your cell phone, it's going to be much more common." For some, the question is not whether to video-chat with patients, but rather how to strike a balance between video and real-life appointments.In the winter, a mountainous region of California that the locals call the Grapevine is plagued by severe weather.The highway that winds through it is coated with snow and ice, making travel between central and southern parts of the state difficult and, sometimes, nearly impossible. Gregory Smith, who specializes in treating chronic pain and prescription drug abuse, can't make it from his office in Los Angeles to his Fresno clinic.

Two years ago, his only options were to reschedule appointments or cancel altogether.But now, Smith uses his computer webcam to "see" his patients.He estimates the video technology enabled him to save 350 to 500 appointments this year."It's almost as good as being there," said Smith, whose two clinics have more than 1,300 patients.Web-camera doctor appointments have their benefits and their drawbacks.Free online video-chat services let doctors check in quickly with patients, which can be more convenient for both.