Telehealth 101: How to Visit Your Doctor Online
Last updated: April 2020
Telehealth is a virtual service that lets patients interact with a healthcare professional online. This lets doctors and patients connect without being in the same room, or even the same city. Some of these appointments can replace office visits, which can have many benefits.
Studies of people with migraine, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions show that virtual care can improve people’s health. Studies also show telehealth can make it quicker and less costly to get care.1,2
This may be especially helpful for people living in rural areas or who have a rare condition with few specialists nearby. During a public health crisis, like a pandemic, telehealth can be used to help prevent even more infections. However, not every medical visit can be replaced with an online chat, email, or text. So, there are some limits to what telehealth can do.
What is telehealth (virtual care)?
Telehealth includes any health service delivered using digital technology. It is sometimes called telemedicine or virtual health visits. This includes digital image sharing, videoconferences, texts, and smartphone apps. Telehealth lets patients connect with doctors, nurses, physical therapists, speech therapists, or mental health professionals.
There are 2 main types of virtual health visits:
- Services used to diagnose, monitor, and treat a condition
- Services used for prevention, training, and health education3,4
How does telehealth work?
Virtual health visits are offered by hospitals, clinics, and private companies like American Well and Teladoc.5 The patient or the doctor can suggest the use of telehealth.
There are 4 ways to use this technology:
A live video conference allows you to interact in real-time with a doctor or therapist.
Both the doctor and patient do not need to be together at the same time for this type of telehealth. With store-and-forward telehealth, you collect your medical data and transmit it to the doctor. The doctor can review the data and call, email, or text you as needed. This is used often in dermatology to show changes in the skin, or in other conditions to share test results.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM)
With RPM, you collect your personal health data at home, using a specific device, and send it to a doctor. This is used to manage chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, or asthma.
Mobile health (mHealth)
You can access care and health education using mobile devices. This includes cell phones, tablets, and smartwatches. One example are texts that encourage someone to quit or reduce smoking.6
What are the benefits of telehealth?
The benefits of virtual health visits include:
People can be diagnosed and treated earlier, even if they live far from a hospital or medical specialist. This can benefit people’s health and may lower treatment costs. Hospital ICUs that use virtual health visits have lower death rates. Research shows that telemedicine can improve recovery from strokes and heart failure.7
Increased access to care
Virtual health visits can help remove the barriers of time, distance, and doctor shortages. This can help people in rural areas and underserved urban areas. It may also help people who have problems getting to a doctor’s office. Many telehealth systems offer 24-hour access to doctors. In times like a public health emergency, telehealth lets people access care while reducing demand on emergency rooms.
Remote patient monitoring reduces hospital visits and ambulance trips. It lets doctors and pharmacists manage prescriptions from anywhere. Plus, it reduces hospital transfers during certain emergencies.7
What are some limits of virtual health visits?
Telehealth was invented years ago but is relatively new to the U.S. Because of this, there are some potential challenges for people who want to use these services, including:
- Outdated laws and guidelines
- Possible threats to patient privacy and safety
- Problems with what insurance will cover and how doctors will get paid for services
- Problems when telehealth crosses state lines, if those states have different rules
- Cost of investing in technology and training for healthcare workers and patients
- Limits to what health conditions can be diagnosed and treated
- People’s access to and comfort with the internet and technology8
Will my insurance pay for virtual care?
It depends on what insurance you have. Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Affairs, and many health insurance companies have recently agreed to cover more telehealth services than before. The federal government also recently lifted some privacy regulations that make telehealth easier to use. The types of telehealth services available, and how they can be provided, can change often. Virtual health visits that were not paid by insurance in the past, may now be covered. Check with your insurance company first before using these services.6,9
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