8 Common Questions About Telemedicine, Answered

Telemedicine visits are usually cheaper—and more convenient—than an in-person doctor appointment.

Imagine receiving real-time care from a healthcare provider located in another city or state via your cell phone or the internet. This, in a nutshell, is telemedicine.

The term telehealth covers a wider spectrum of technology that supports healthcare, but most people use the terms interchangeably, says Corey Scurlock, MD, medical director of the eHealth program at Westchester Medical Center in New York. Some physicians, and more than half of all hospitals, are using telemedicine in some capacity, and several online providers offer round-the-clock patient care via telemedicine.

How can I get care through telemedicine?

You can ask your healthcare provider, employer or insurance company if telemedicine options are available to you. Many national providers of telemedicine allow you to speak to a licensed health professional—either a primary care doctor or a specialist—through the internet or your phone (using an app or phone call), usually within minutes, any time, day or night. These companies provide care for common concerns such as colds and flu, allergies, urinary tract infections and mental health conditions.

What are some advantages of telemedicine?

Telemedicine is convenient. You don’t have to worry about taking time off work, parking or covering child or eldercare needs. Obviously, telemedicine doesn’t work for surgery or procedures that require hands-on care, but it is a great option for following up or determining what type of care you need. If your problem can be addressed remotely, it’s less expensive than a traditional office visit (typically $50 to $75). Telemedicine physicians can even provide prescriptions in some cases.

What options are there for specialty care?

If you need specialty care that’s not available in your area, or not available in a timely manner, telemedicine can be a good option. Take psychiatry, for example. Fewer than half of the counties in the U.S. have a psychiatrist, explains Dr. Scurlock, and many psychiatrists are approaching retirement age, which means large areas of the country are without psychiatric support, especially at a time when drug abuse is on the rise.

“Psychiatry is really the front line when it comes to taking care of these patients,” he says. “We can connect patients to psychiatrists via telehealth relatively rapidly and patients like it. Some even prefer it. It solves a really severe staffing problem for the country.”

What are the disadvantages of telemedicine?

Technology is not always fail proof and bandwidth limitations during peak times can affect a telemedicine encounter, says Travis Hanson, JD, MS, executive director at The F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. Furthermore, Hanson says, provider reimbursements are still a challenge, although this is changing.

Telemedicine doesn’t work for things that require hands-on care. However, as technology evolves, even this is becoming less of a problem. Hanson says in west Texas, prisons have just started performing eye exams on inmates using an onsite nurse, onsite equipment and a remote eye doctor.

Do I get the same level of care?

Yes. “Physicians are responsible to make sure the standard of care for each telemedicine encounter is the same as if the physician and patient were together,” Hanson says.

Is my security and privacy protected?

Yes, as long as you have a secured connection. All telemedicine companies and platforms have to comply with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), says Scurlock, and there is regulatory oversight by cyber security experts. “A large part of the expenditures in telemedicine is on security and privacy.”

Does insurance or Medicare cover telemedicine?

It depends. Some services are covered by insurance and Medicare. It’s best to check with your provider. Provider reimbursement is an area that’s changing rapidly. For example, in February 2018, Congress passed the FAST Act (Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine), requiring Medicare to reimburse providers for tele-stroke care even in suburban and urban areas. People who’ve had a stroke require immediate medical attention and using telemedicine helps ensure they get the care they need in a timely manner.

What else do I need to know?

The laws governing telemedicine are a bit different in each state, Hanson says. However, the Department of Health and Human Services has 12 telemedicine resource centers that cover every state, so you can learn more about the laws—and telemedicine—in your area.

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