How to Navigate the World of Telemedicine and Get the Virtual Care You Need

Doctors are making house calls again—just not in the way you might expect. Here are all the advantages telemedicine has to offer, especially right now. 

Woman in quarantine talking to doctor online computer
Photo: Getty Images

Since mid-March most Americans have been steadily sheltering in place, avoiding their normally frequented spots like school and work, shops and restaurants, and even public places. This is all, of course, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and flatten the curve. And high on this list of places not to go (unless you have to) are hospitals and doctors' offices.

This lifestyle shift created by social distancing measures means forgoing standard medical appointments. It also means skipping just-in-case emergency room visits for minor ailments like sore throats and cuts, so medical staff can focus all their attention on treating, testing, and caring for those who need it most right now.

None of this is to say you should miss out on receiving professional medical advice altogether. After all, this is 2020, and telemedicine is readily available.

Never heard of it? As the American Academy of Family Physicians defines it, telemedicine is "the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to deliver care to a patient at a distant site."

Telemedicine differs slightly from telehealth, which refers more broadly to "electronic and telecommunications technologies and services used to provide care and services at-a-distance." Think of it this way: Telehealth is for general care, while telemedicine is for clinical care (which refers specifically to the direct treatment and care of patients).

Ready to dive in and make your first digital appointment? Here's everything you need to know about telemedicine so you can decide if it's the right option for you.

01 of 05

Make Sure Your Insurance Plan Covers It

Insurance coverage varies from provider to provider, so there's no straightforward answer, unfortunately. Consumer Reports helps explain that larger employers and government insurance programs, such as Medicaid, do indeed offer telehealth coverage, which typically comes with the same in-person visit costs. However, other insurance plans may be more restrictive when it comes to covering virtual doctor visits and healthcare services.

"The federal government has recently loosened its restrictions on telehealth as part of Medicare programs, allowing more Medicare patients to access services from their homes," says Julia Wilkinson, a genetic counselor at Invitae. "On the state level, many governments have expanded telehealth as part of their Medicaid programs."

Check out the American Telemedicine Association for state-by-state coverage and contact your personal insurance carrier to find out which telemedicine options are available to you.

RELATED: Don't Pay a Medical Bill Until You Do These 5 Things

02 of 05

The Benefits of Telemedicine, Especially Now

Telemedicine has tremendous opportunity both for patients and healthcare providers, says Mike Sevilla, MD, a practicing family physician in Salem, Ohio. Some common advantages of telemedicine include eliminating the issues of child care or elder care for parents or caretakers, as it does not require leaving the house or commuting to a doctor's office. It's possible, too, to experience increased access to doctors who may otherwise be booked or too far away for an in-person visit.

Of course, since the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shelter-in-place mandates, telemedicine has become a huge asset—and in some cases, a literal lifeline—for patients.

"Telemedicine gives patients the assurance of not being exposed to other illnesses," Dr. Sevilla says, reiterating its significance. "Especially now, with patient concern over potential exposure to coronavirus in a doctor's waiting room."

Giving telemedicine a try during the pandemic is not only a smart preventive measure for your own health, but a responsible precaution to take for the health of others.

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When Is It Most Beneficial—and for Whom?

According to Dr. Sevilla, telemedicine is best suited for those in the most urgent need, including those exhibiting any symptoms related to the coronavirus infection.

For patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

"In our office, if any patients call in saying that they're experiencing any kind of fever, cough, or shortness of breath symptoms, we prefer to set up a telemedicine visit to see what's happening with them," he says.

Vulnerable populations who shouldn't risk an excursion.

Beyond those with COVID-19 symptoms, he says telemedicine may be an excellent option for vulnerable populations, including the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, so they too can avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor's office.

"Sometimes, older individuals tend to have some difficulty using technology, but many offices, such as the one I work in, help these individuals by walking them through the process so they can see their doctors through a telemedicine visit," he says.

For non-emergency queries and concerns.

For other populations, telemedicine can also work wonders for visits with what Dr. Sevilla calls "uncomplicated" issues. This can include those with questions about skin concerns, allergies, and joint pain. Telemedicine is also an easy way for patients to refill prescriptions of chronic medicines.

For non-emergency prenatal care from home.

"I work with a lot of pregnant women, or those considering pregnancy, and it's nice to be able to continue care by providing genetic carrier screenings via telemedicine, which are recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists," Wilkinson says. Invitae's carrier screening tests, can be ordered from and used at home to give women "a chance to continue their prenatal care without having to go into a clinic," but still under the support of medical professionals.

For basic dental checkups.

"Teledentistry is used to facilitate the diagnosis, consultation, treatment, education, care management, and self-management of patients' health care virtually so expanding its use can benefit everyone," says Sean Boynes, DMD, MS, vice president of health improvement at DentaQuest. "People forego dental care for all sorts of reasons. Using teledentistry, we can bring care to people in community settings like nursing homes and schools as well as in rural parts of the country helps eliminate barriers to care and encourages preventive oral health practices."

04 of 05

How to Prepare and Navigate a Telemedicine Appointment

It's easy to start thinking technology can solve all our medical woes, but that isn't quite the case. Wilkinson explains, there are a few issues people may not even consider when booking a digital appointment.

A quiet place with good lighting and internet connection.

Find the right location to sit in for your appointment that has good sound and light so the medical professional on the other end can see and hear you clearly.

Be early—this is for you!

"Just as you would arrive early for an in-person appointment, join your telehealth appointment a few minutes early to make sure your smartphone, tablet, or laptop is working properly beforehand," Wilkinson says. (Don't waste precious minutes—that you're paying for—fixing your camera or finding a good web connection).

Do some prep work.

Before the appointment, write down symptoms and questions you may have for the doctor to ensure you get all the information you need. To speed up the background info process, "make sure you have the first day of your last period, blood pressure reading, or any other helpful information handy," she says. "Include the address and phone number for your pharmacy as well."

During the appointment, keep a notebook on hand to take notes and record recommendations, instructions, questions, or follow up actions.

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What Teledoctors Can (and Can't) Treat

As the name suggests any testing or treatments that require physical contact with a patient isn't possible over phone or video. Medical professionals using telemedicine can help with those straightforward problems, as Dr. Sevilla said, but won't be able to assist if further testing, such as a strep test or urine test, is needed. This will require an in-office follow-up.

Wilkinson agrees, adding that while "doctors may not be able to do all physical examinations or medical procedures using telemedicine, most of the information-gathering, consenting, and preparation for an in-person visit may be able to be done using telemedicine to help streamline any in-person appointments that are necessary."

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