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Telehealth Guide: What You Need to Know

Telehealth is changing the way we interact with medical providers. What are some of the key trends in telehealth? What are some of the benefits of telehealth?

These days it seems we do almost everything online using our phones. This trend has swept into how we receive healthcare and communicate with our healthcare providers. A 2021 government survey shows one in four people had recently used telehealth services to connect online with their healthcare provider. This sea change means you can get some healthcare services without leaving your home – virtual medicine is here.

The American Medical Association proclaims that telehealth is a “critical part of the future of health care.” Don’t be surprised if your doctors start offering online interactions with you as an option. Harvard University reports that 76% of US hospitals connect doctors and patients remotely using telehealth. If you used the online approach during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, you were part of a 60% increase in the number of Americans who had one telehealth appointment.

What is Telehealth?

Telehealth is a way for doctors to provide care to patients without an in-person office visit. The evolving approach uses the internet to connect you with a physician using your digital devices such as a smartphone, computer, or tablet.

Many people use the word telehealth interchangeably with “telemedicine.” Though technically, telehealth is broader than telemedicine because, in addition to remote healthcare delivery, telehealth includes medical professional training and continuing education. 

Telehealth Care Options

Telehealth care gives you several options for interacting with your doctor or other healthcare providers:

  • Live conversations on the phone or a video chat
  • Messaging, email, and file exchanges all secure to protect privacy
  • Remote monitoring of patient vital signs like blood pressure and blood sugar levels collected by digital devices and shared online with doctors
  • Online portals for checking test results, getting prescriptions refilled, or scheduling an appointment
  • Visibility into exam notes, test results, diagnoses, medications, and drug allergies for all a patient’s providers in various locations 
  • Email or text reminders to get a mammogram, colonoscopy, or routine vaccinations
  • Keeping medical teams informed on older adults eating, sleeping, and medication-taking habits

How Long has Telehealth Been Around?

Starting in the 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Nebraska Psychology Institute pioneered the development of telemedicine. NASA wanted to use remote monitoring to improve medical care for long-duration space missions.

With broadband infrastructure investments already in place, telehealth adoption exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Heightened concerns about getting or giving the virus to someone during an in-person medical office visit suddenly made online medical services the perfect solution.

Pros and Cons of Telehealth

As you evaluate whether to use telehealth options in medical care, there are some pros and cons you’ll want to consider.

Telehealth Pros

Some positive aspects of telemedicine include: 

  • Save costs of driving, gas, parking, and loss of time from going to an onsite medical visit 
  • The Convenience of not having to leave your home to get medical services
  • Access to medical care if you are located in a rural area with limited medical providers, specialists, etc.
  • Online scheduling takes only a few minutes and can be done any time of the day or night
  • No wasted time sitting in a medical office waiting for your appointment to start 

Telehealth Cons

On the other hand, telehealth can also have some negative aspects or limitations to keep in mind.

  • Imaging tests, blood work, and diagnoses of some conditions can’t be done via telehealth
  • Glitches with technology or internet service can disrupt a telehealth interaction 
  • Risks that an insurance carrier won’t cover a remote telehealth visit
  • Concerns that personal medical information might be leaked or stolen when telehealth technology is used
  • For some, it may be harder to hear what their doctor is saying when interacting with them online
  • Delivery of particularly bad, unsettling medical news may be better done in person so patients can receive comfort from their physician

When is Telehealth Useful?

Telehealth is used for all kinds of medical needs and care. Visits with a new primary care provider where a lot of initial information is exchanged and rapport established can be a good use of the telehealth approach. Requesting a prescription refill or scheduling an appointment can be done very efficiently with online telehealth tools – eliminating sitting on hold or waiting for a callback. 

Researchers have documented that mental health services delivered via telehealth expanded significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic and the trend is expected to continue. Patients with disorders such as anxiety and fear-related issues may not feel comfortable going to medical offices for appointments. Bringing mental health care into their homes can be an advantage and encourage more people to get the help they need. Quick, secure text check-ins with their therapist can be very helpful for people suffering from a mental illness. 

Even dermatologists can examine suspicious skin conditions and other problems via telehealth technology, recommending an in-office visit for testing or removal if necessary. For people with chronic skin issues such as psoriasis or eczema, telehealth can be a good option for ensuring they have regular maintenance meetings with their dermatologist.

How to Prepare for Your Appointment

There are a few practical things to consider when preparing for your telehealth appointment:

Why Telehealth Makes Sense for College Students

One area ripe for using telehealth is college student medical care. College students experiencing the freedom of college life will often put off routine medical care. If they have chronic conditions, this can be particularly concerning. For Gen Zers, a telehealth appointment with their specialist from home can help ensure they continue their care. For annual exams or to have something looked at quickly, scheduling an appointment using the online student health facility’s portal is a great option if available at the school. 

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can strike young people at college. If there is an easy way for a student to get a telemedicine appointment with a therapist and talk things over from the security of their dorm room, they may be more likely to seek out help. 

Moreover, telehealth has been embraced by younger generations. 70+% of Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X prefer telehealth because of its convenience. In fact, 44% indicated they might switch providers if telehealth visits aren’t available. 

Insurance and Telehealth

Today, many insurance companies across the country have started to cover telehealth appointments. Yet the different ways state legislatures are defining the components of telehealth services and what has to be covered have created a patchwork of laws with great differences.

43 states and the District of Columbia (DC) have a private payer law on telehealth reimbursement. In 50 states and DC, some form of live video is reimbursed in Medicaid fee-for-service.

The key to getting a telehealth appointment covered is to ask your health insurance provider what types of telehealth services it covers. You’ll need to get very specific and ask things like

  • How is the term telemedicine/ telehealth defined?
  • Will live video and audio-only appointments be covered?
  • What about store-and-forward of messages?
  • Do you pay for email/ phone/ fax telehealth costs?
  • Is remote patient monitoring covered?
  • What’s your policy on online prescribing?
  • Do you cover online dental appointments?
  • Will you cover _____ (insert the specific type of healthcare provider you are getting help from, e.g., Mental health, pathology, physical therapy)