Telemedicine, or telehealth, is a way to receive healthcare services remotely, typically via web conferencing or phone call. Some telehealth services can occur entirely via text message or chat. Telehealth can be a convenient, safe way to receive medical care, but many patients have questions about whether virtual medical care is safe, reliable, and accurate.
Use of telemedicine has steadily increased in the recent past as technology has improved and has also dramatically increased during the coronavirus pandemic. It is anticipated that telemedicine will continue to serve a large role in the delivery of healthcare services going forward.
Telemedicine covers a wide range of clinical activities that can be performed remotely and can include remote monitoring of health and vital signs, providing patient education, and live virtual video appointments. Telemedicine can be synchronous or asynchronous, meaning the patient and clinician can communicate live or with a delay (like via email).
Telemedicine appointments require that participants have necessary technology and appropriate Wi-Fi or cellular coverage. Also, before the appointment, insurance coverage and copay requirements should be confirmed and consent obtained.
In general, a virtual telemedicine visit progresses similarly to an in-person visit, except that certain information, such as vital signs, may need to be self-reported by the patient, and the physical exam may be more focused and limited.
Telehealth has been shown to improve clinical outcomes in certain conditions, for example in diabetes care management and heart failure care.
In some cases, provider policies and practices may differ with virtual visits. One study found an increased number of antibiotic prescriptions were given to those with virtual visits versus in-person visits.
Not every kind of medical appointment is appropriate for a telemedicine visit. Telemedicine visits are best for follow up visits with a doctor you’ve seen before, when you need to monitor a chronic condition, get a refill of a medication, have an exam for an area that can easily be assessed by a video appointment (such as a skin exam), and for counseling and mental health visits. Telehealth visits are less appropriate when seeing a new doctor for the first time, need to have a physical exam, or need to have labs or radiology tests done.
Telehealth appointments overall are lower cost vs. traditional in person visits. This is especially true for people paying out-of-pocket; however most insurance plans now cover telehealth visits.
Though telemedicine is now a well-established and growing mode of receiving healthcare, there are a number of regulatory challenges, including issues regarding education of medical students and residents, health information data security, insurance coverage, licensing of providers across state lines, and prescribing of controlled substances.
The POV offers a free directory of reputable telemedicine providers to help you make an informed decision in the digital age.