It’s kind of “Back to the Future” for physicians. The house call, a staple of primary medicine for generations, disappeared along with black-and-white TVs and the sitcoms that populated them.

But now, a digital doctor is bringing house calls back — even though the doctor is not actually at the patient’s home.

Evanston-based NorthShore University HealthSystem is expanding the concept of telemedicine with a device that lets a doctor listen to a patient’s heartbeat, check the ear canal, throat and lungs, along with taking a temperature and a pulse, all from a remote location.

In other words, it’s a doctor’s appointment where the patient is at home with the remote kit, while the doctor sees the patient without leaving the office.

“That’s the beauty of the device,” says Dr. Nadim Ilbawi, family physician with NorthShore. “It captures an accurate physical examination without the patient being in front of us.”

Designed by a company called TytoCare, the remote exam kit was tested by about 300 NorthShore employees earlier this year.

Reviews, says Ilbawi, were positive, so the device is now available to the public, for contacting Immediate Care and pediatricians, with adult primary care and perhaps some specialties down the road.

The Tytocare device with addons. (Handout)

The TytoCare device is about the size of a cell phone, with attachments for checking various vital signs such as heartbeat and temperature. There is also a tongue depressor and an otoscope tip (for the ear canal).

While the TytoCare implement was designed before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, “there’s no doubt that telehealth was accelerated by COVID,” Ilbawi says, with more patients interested in not having to go to the doctor in-person.

The pandemic has also seen other firms develop remote medical devices. CNN Business reported this summer that telemedicine companies “are changing the future of doctor visits.”

In addition to TytoCare, the article says that Sanford Health, a large hospital chain in Minnesota and the Dakotas, has developed “home monitoring kits” for women with low-risk pregnancies. Those kits come with a fetal ultrasound monitor and a blood pressure cuff, and could, the article states, be used in place of about one-third of a patient’s in-person prenatal visits.

Another company, Los Angeles-based Kiira, has a device which is targeted at two different markets … underserved low income individuals, and college students, both of whom may have different obstacles to in-person medical care.

Patients are not on their own trying to figure out the TytoCare device. The doctor guides the patient through the steps.

If the telehealth exam discovers something requiring an office visit, then the doctor will set that up.

NorthShore is the exclusive provider of the TytoCare device in Illinois. The device costs approximately $300 (with discount coupons available), a one-time purchase for an tool that can be used frequently. Insurance does not cover the kits yet, although flexible spending and health savings accounts can be used.

Ilbawi says that NorthShore is looking into providing the devices for places such as community centers or religious institutions in low income areas where health disparities have been a long-standing issue.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.