We rely on digital technology for just about everything these days, from work to school to booking vacations. It seems natural, then, that technology wants to revolutionize how we get healthcare, too.
Known as telehealth or telemedicine, digital healthcare communication makes it easy to chat with your doctor, even when you can’t get to the office. But there are limits to this not-so-newfangled technology. Here are some tips on when you should use telemedicine — and when you shouldn’t.
Not every medical visit requires a trip to the office. Instead, you can touch base with your doctors through online platforms. Websites exist to make this easier, but your own doctor may have a portal as well.
Telemedicine is a growing field, and Americans seem to like it. According to a 2019 report from the American Hospital Association, 76% percent of hospitals relied on telemedicine in some form in 2017. That’s an 11-point jump from the year before (65%).
You may save money with telemedicine, too. A 2017 study published in Health Affairs found that patients paid about $79 on average for online visits and nearly twice that ($146) for in-person appointments.
Still, your out-of-pocket costs for a virtual visit will vary depending on your insurance plan. Different insurers, including private payers and Medicaid plans, provide different levels of coverage for digital visits.
And if you have Original Medicare, you’ll need to tread carefully when it comes to telemedicine. The federal health insurance program for seniors sets rules for digital doctor visits. (Medicare Advantage enrollees should check with their plan details.)
When to Use Telehealth
Telemedicine may save you money, but a price tag isn’t the only factor. You can use telehealth for a variety of reasons. In general, use telehealth for minor, non-emergency situations, such as:
- Respiratory symptoms
- Digestive trouble
- Minor aches and pains
- Mental health
- Follow-up appointments
Cold and flu season make a pretty good case for staying away from other people. Normal respiratory viruses usually go away on their own with rest and home care. If you have a sore throat, cough, stuffy nose and other respiratory symptoms, use telemedicine to check in with your doctor. He can assess the symptoms and determine if you need to come in or not.
Diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, heartburn and constipation all fall under the “digestive troubles” label. These symptoms on their own can be irritating but not necessarily serious. If they aren’t severe and you can keep liquids down, consider a virtual visit instead of an in-person one.
But always ask your doctor for specific advice. Unrelenting nausea may point to more than just spicy food.
While it might be hard to describe a skin rash or an insect bite over the phone, video conferencing makes it relatively easy to explain the problem. From chickenpox to hives, online diagnosing may save you the trouble of coming in to see a doctor.
Note: If your rash includes other symptoms, like trouble breathing and/or a fever, call 911 or head to the hospital. It could be an allergic reaction. Play it safe.
We won’t get into the full list of things a medical provider can diagnose online, but you might be surprised. You may find help for things like:
- Urinary tract issues
- Joint or muscle pain
- Mild sprains
- Eye infections
- Oral sores
You may also be able to get a prescription for birth control via telehealth. And speaking of prescriptions, note that doctors can prescribe medicine through virtual visits as well. That means you may get a diagnosis and a prescription sent to your pharmacy without having to leave home.
Whether you’ve got a diagnosed mental health condition or you’re struggling and not sure where to turn, therapy can help. And telehealth may help you further by giving you a more comfortable outlet for one-on-one consultations.
Some people like online therapy better. If that idea appeals to you, find a mental health professional you can talk to over the web.
Don’t forget to check with your health insurance first. Major medical plans cover mental health as an essential benefit by law, but plans differ in how they define this benefit.
Your doctor may ask you to follow up after an illness or a procedure. Video conferencing can be a quick and easy way to check in.
Why Choose Telehealth
There are four good reasons to choose telehealth when you can: cost, disease spread, time, and rural limitations.
We’ve already discussed that telemedicine might cost less than a standard in-person visit. That’s especially true when you compare it to a trip to an urgent care place or the emergency room. A telehealth visit may cost no more than your regular copay.
Virtual visits also keep the spread of disease low. It’s better for everyone — you, other patients and your providers — if you stay home when you’re sick. Plus, if you’re dealing with a gastrointestinal virus (stomach bug) or a highly contagious disease like strep throat, telehealth will help you keep your germs to yourself.
And instead of sitting in an office waiting room, you can call up a doctor when you need right from your own couch (or bed). Telemedicine saves time. It’s also more convenient for people with mobility issues.
For people who live in rural areas, telemedicine also opens up access to more doctors. Driving for hours at a time to see a specialist can be expensive and draining. Telehealth makes it possible to chat with providers who may be able to help you but who aren’t readily available where you live.
When to Go in Person
As handy as telemedicine is, it’s not always the best choice. Video chats can’t replace every trip to the doctor’s office.
Emergencies always require immediate, in-person attention.
If you suspect a broken bone, a heart attack, a stroke or a life-threatening allergic reaction, skip the online visit and head straight to the emergency room (or call 911). The same goes for deep cuts and lots of blood.
In some cases, your doctor might recommend coming in for a visit even if you’ve already chatted online. Keep in mind that you may end up paying two bills if that happens — one for the online appointment and another for the office visit.
If you’re on the fence about whether telemedicine makes sense for your situation, call ahead to your doctor’s office first and ask to speak with the nurse line. Triage nurses may be able to tell you whether your problem warrants an in-person visit or not.
And while virtual visits help, they aren’t a good sub for a local primary care doctor. Don’t forgo your annual wellness check, and keep up with any in-person visits your doctor recommends. Regular preventive care can help you avoid bigger problems later.
For occasional check-ins, mild illnesses and minor injuries, though, telemedicine works well for most people. Just remember to check with your health insurance plan about coverage before you start the process.