Last Saturday, my wife and I got a glimpse of what a free market in health care might look like. We were driving from Monterey to Santa Barbara to stay in a rented house for the week. Along the way, my wife had a symptom. I don’t want to name the symptom because I want to respect her privacy. It was a more-extreme symptom than she had previously had of a disease that she had already been diagnosed with. It happened so suddenly that it scared us both.

Just a few years ago, we probably would have looked up Doctors on Duty, Urgent Care, or some other “docs-in-a-box” facility when we hit Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo. That itself was a nice free-market innovation. But we probably would have taken an hour to find it, sit waiting for her appointment, and then have the appointment. And it would have likely been with a generalist, not a specialist.

But 2 months earlier, after much prompting from my students to get with the decade, I finally had bought an iPad. We had it with us. I was driving and so my wife got on the iPad and did a Google search. What came up was a site called “Just Answer.” She clicked on the link for “Doctors and Nurses” and registered. She had two choices: (1) pay $24 and wait who knows how long for an answer or (2) pay $38 for an expedited answer. We were concerned enough that she did the latter. She keyed in her symptoms and some of her medical history. About an hour later, a specialist–a neurologist–was on her case and she and I my wife went back and forth on a “chat” feature on the site that also allowed my wife to “save” the conversation. Bottom line: deal with the symptoms while we were in Santa Barbara for a week and then get some blood tests when she returned. My guess is that she would have gotten a similar response from Doctors on Duty or Urgent Care. But we would have been slowed down, we would have paid a multiple of the $38, and we wouldn’t have had a specialist.

One great thing about free markets is they tend to break out when not totally oppressed. There’s an obvious reason: gains from exchange. And the web often facilitates that breakout.