Under the current impacts of COVID-19, patients are increasingly seeking medical help from a distance. Telemedicine visits rose 50 percent in March alone, and are on track to hit 1 billion by the end of 2020, according to Recode.
With the pandemic’s restrictions in place, it can be difficult to be seen even for routine concerns such as a sore throat or pink eye. Some physician offices are only doing visits with well patients, such as routine checkups, while others are spacing out appointments and offering fewer time slots.
That’s where telemedicine comes in. With a smartphone or computer and the internet, you can communicate with a physician virtually whenever and wherever you need help.
What is telemedicine?
The World Health Organization defines telemedicine as “healing from a distance.” Whether you’re on vacation, need care after work hours, or stuck at home without child care, telemedicine allows you the flexibility of speaking to a care provider in real time using digital devices such as cell phones, computers or tablets.
While forms of telemedicine — especially using the telephone, television and video cameras — have existed since the 1960s, the practice greatly accelerated with the widespread use of the internet. With the internet, synchronous consulting meant physicians could operate in real time rather than storing and forwarding information.
Sometimes the terms telehealth and telemedicine are use interchangeably, but they are in fact different practices:
- Telemedicine specifically refers to remote clinical services. Telemedicine usually involves the use of electronic communications and software to provide clinical services to patients without an in-person visit
- Telehealth is a broader term encompassing remote non-clinical services, such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, in addition to clinical services.
What conditions are appropriate for telemedicine?
There are a variety of conditions that can be treated with a telemedicine visit:
- Colds and sore throats
- Insect bites
- Pink eye
- Teledermatology (consultations of moles, rashes, etc.)
- Anything that doesn’t absolutely depend on an in-person physical examination
What conditions need in-person care?
Anything that needs immediate, hands-on attention should be handled in person:
- Any emergency, including heart attack or stroke
- Cuts or lacerations
- Broken bones that require x-rays, splints, or casts.
Often, follow-ups for these conditions can be handled through telemedicine. For example if a cut appears infected, you may schedule a virtual visit and discuss your symptoms.
How can I access telemedicine?
Start with your own physician’s office and call or email to ask if they provide telemedicine visits. If so, they can help you connect with the right system, which will keep you connected to your health home.
If your physician doesn’t offer telemedicine, consult your insurance provider, which should have a list of options that are covered in your network.
The biggest challenge to access is good internet service. Especially in areas lacking broadband, telemedicine can be difficult to use. Even with good internet, it may take a few minutes to connect with a provider.
How can I prepare for the visit?
Here are 5 tips from U.S. News & World Report to help you prepare for your visit:
- Complete all paperwork ahead of time.
- Check with your insurance company about what services are offered.
- Get your phone or computer ready. Check that the volume is up and camera access has been granted to the appropriate application before the call starts. Download an app if needed to access service.
- Keep a pen and paper ready.
- Find a quiet setting. But you can also have a friend or family member join the call to take notes if that’s helpful to you.
While telemedicine cannot fully replace in-person care, it can offer an important alternative, especially given the unusual circumstances of 2020.