What You Need to Know About Telemedicine

What You Need to Know About Telemedicine

A doctor visit done over the phone or through video-chat is convenient—but is it right for you?

Telemedicine is a way of interacting with a physician by way of remote services such as text or video, without having to physically go into the office. Originally created for people living in "doctor deserts" (or places where there’s a lack of medical doctors, facilities or resources), telemedicine is now used for straightforward conditions like coughs and colds, bladder infections and rashes.

After hospitalizations, certain hospitals can also work in conjunction with a doctor to remotely monitor your health. For example, they can send you a kit with a blood pressure cuff, pulse oximeter and a scale, all of which are connected to a Bluetooth-enabled tablet. Once you take your measurements, they can then be sent directly to a remote care team.

“I think most people are familiar with telemedicine in the context of doing a video visit with a doctor from afar,” says J. Polizzi, DO, FAAFP, a practicing Family Physician and Regional Ambulatory Chief Medical Information Officer for Mercy Health Physician Partners in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Telemedicine works in one of two ways: either through phone calls or live video chatting (called synchronous), or through email or texting (called asynchronous or "store and forward").

Many doctors also interact with their patients through an online portal. Patients can communicate with the office, request refills and clinicians can send test results.

With telemedicine, it’s all about convenience
Telemedicine can be helpful because you don't have to drive long distances, sit in waiting rooms or miss work to attend a doctor appointment, says Polizzi. With remote doctor visits, you have more flexibility with appointment times, too—scheduling visits earlier or later in the day than you would with a typical physician appointment.

With a typical doctor visit, you schedule follow-up appointments with your doctor to see how you’re doing. With telemedicine, doctors can answer a patient’s questions as well as check up on their status after a visit or after being discharged from the hospital—all from a distance.

Telemedicine is also gaining popularity for its ability to help individuals with mental health needs. For a mental health visit, a doctor might schedule a video call or text back and forth with a patient.

“There's a shortage of behavioral health professionals, and it's often difficult to get people to go to those visits,” says Polizzi. However, telemedicine removes some barriers that prevent patients from seeking help, like lack of transportation and accessibility to doctor’s offices.

It could also be helpful for those living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, according to Polizzi. For example, if done remotely, a nurse care manager could check in more frequently with a diabetes patient than a traditional doctor visit.

The drawbacks of telemedicine
“There are a lot of things that we're not quite comfortable diagnosing remotely,” says Polizzi. Many diseases and conditions cannot be diagnosed from a distance, and something like strep throat, for example, will most likely additional testing. If that’s the case, the doctors will ask you to come in person for the necessary labs and exams. There can also be technical issues like poor connections or phone service glitches that might affect your remote visit, says Polizzi.

With asynchronous telemedicine, you’ll also miss out on the face-to-face communication with your clinician. If you prefer seeing your doctor face-to-face or meeting with someone who knows your healthcare history, telemedicine might not be the best option for you.

How you can use telemedicine
As of January 2018, there are currently 28 states, plus D.C., that require private insurance companies to cover your telemedicine visit. Whether or not Medicaid covers telemedicine depends on the specific state that you live in. Each state has different requirements and systems in place to determine how much they will cover, what types of providers will cover it and how it will be provided.

Want to find out how your state handles telemedicine? Head over to the Center for Connected Health Policy’s site for more information. Medicare will cover telemedicine services if you’re over the age of 65, living in a rural area, or living somewhere with few healthcare providers.

To locate a physician who uses telemedicine, try the Sharecare app’s Find a Doctor function on your mobile device.  

“Telemedicine is rapidly expanding, and I think it's only going to get bigger and more popular,” says Polizzi.

Medically reviewed in March 2018.

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