Meet Spruce, a Telemedicine App Designed to Stop Acne in Its Tracks

Meet Spruce, a Telemedicine App Designed to Stop Acne in Its Tracks
Image credit: Spruce

Baring your acne to a dermatologist in person can be a painful and embarrassing experience. Painful because there’s almost always some wince-inducing poking and prodding of problem spots involved. Embarrassing because society -- and confidence-killing skin care marketers -- excel at shaming people with acne vulgaris.

But a clever new app called Spruce seeks to help acne sufferers avoid face-to-face dermatologist visits, allowing them to seek treatment quickly and relatively easily from the privacy of their own phone.

Founded by Ray Bradford, a former partner at VC firm Kleiner Perkins, Spruce has raised $2 million in seed funding and officially launched in the App Store in September, with plans to expand to Android soon. The free-to-download telemedicine tool, which is available only for residents of California, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, digitally connects users with board-certified dermatologists. (There is a per virtual doctor visit cost, which we’ll explain in a moment.)

Related: This Smart Skin-Scanning App Could Save Your Life

With the FDA estimating that 500 million smartphone users worldwide will be using health care-related apps by 2015, apps like Spruce are only the beginning.

Here's how it works:

The basics

To use Spruce, start by snapping selfies of the parts of your body where you have acne. Following the app’s helpful prompts and visual guidelines, you can take close up photos of your face, chest, back and any other affected areas. These are the pics that will be shared with a Spruce-contracted board-certified dermatologist, 10 of whom are listed on Spruce’s website.

You’ll then be asked a pretty long list of questions, starting with basic Qs about how your face looks in comparison to the pics you provided. Do you have more or fewer blemishes? Is your skin normal, oily, combo, etc.? What do you think is making your acne worse (stress, hormonal changes, makeup, etc.)?

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Then you’ll be asked which acne medications you’ve ever taken, if any, and how effective they were or if they caused adverse reactions. Hang in there because up next are yet more questions about which over-the-counter acne treatments you’ve used and how they fared.

Once you jump through Spruce’s acne history hoops, it’s time to clear a few medical history hurdles, too. Which skin-related and other conditions have you been diagnosed with in the past? Are you allergic to any medications? Imagine answering the same kinds of questions you’d see on a basic medical history form at a doctor's’ office and you’re there, minus the pen and paper. While the Q&A process is a bit tedious, it’s critical to your diagnosis and treatment.

Finally, to seal the deal, you’ll be asked to pay with your credit card and click “Submit Visit.” And, voila, within 24 hours, you’ll receive a step-by-step personalized treatment plan “with appropriate prescriptions.”

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Your detailed skin care instructions are all neatly tucked into the app, complete with morning and nighttime regimens and prescription directions. If you have any questions about your plan, or experience any issues with your medication, simply fire up the app and ask your care team via message.

The fine print

While the app itself is free, the cost of a Spruce doctor “visit,” plus comprehensive acne care, will put you back $40, which you’ll be asked to pay within the app via credit card. Unfortunately Spruce doesn’t accept health insurance, so it’s an out-of-pocket deal. The company explicitly states that it won’t process insurance claims and neither do its dermatologists. So, it’s on you to check with your insurance provider to seek reimbursement for the $40 fee, if applicable.

Also, should your Spruce doc prescribe medication, you’ll be responsible for paying for it upon pickup at your local Spruce-contracted pharmacy. You can find and select one using the app’s GPS-enabled map. Spruce says your prescription coverage for drugs prescribed through the app “will be the same as if the same drugs had been prescribed at the doctor’s office.”

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Finally, users have to agree to the usual -- and not so usual -- fine print privacy policy stuff. After all, you’re dealing with a bleeding edge telehealth app. When you check the box, you’re saying that you’re at least 18 years old (anyone younger need not apply). You understand that Spruce isn’t for 911-worthy medical emergencies and you’re okay with your Spruce health-care provider making decisions about your medical skin care and treatment. You’re also perfectly fine with electronically sharing your medical records, personal health information and images, etc.

Signing up also means providing identifying information such as your name, birthdate, phone number and gender.

To see how Spruce works for yourself, check out this video walkthrough:

Related: How a Biomed Tech Company Raised $35.7 Million Before Going to Market

Edition: November 2016

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