Telemedicine has been around for decades. It has been touted as a way reduce healthcare costs and to bring care to rural areas with few doctors.
But the idea never really caught on. Now it has, thanks to coronavirus.
Many doctors are now doing the vast majority of their patient appointments online or over the phone. If you’ve made an appointment recently, you may have found that you were asked to see your doctor online.
Before coronavirus, doctors with the Cleveland Clinic averaged 3,400 virtual patient visits a month. That has increased to more than 60,000.
NYU Langone Health hospital system in New York used to have about 50 virtual appointments a day. That number has gone up 18-fold to about 900.
Dr. Manish Naik is chief medical information technology officer at the Austin Regional Clinic in Texas. He believes that telemedicine will be the new normal, even after the coronavirus passes.
“Telemedicine has been on the brink for a while now,” he said. “And doctors and patients are going to find that when this is all over and the dust settle there are a lot of people who are going to want the telemedicine option.”
He said that for years his clinic, like many others, had a telemedicine option. But doctors didn’t promote because insurers paid less than half the rate than for an in-patient visit. That is now changing.
Medicare recently decided to allow all enrollees to use telemedicine and to reimburse doctors at the same rate as for office visits. Private insurers are following.
7 Steps to Quality Telemedicine Care
What exactly is telemedicine? Simply put, it’s healthcare through electronic communication. This typically means you have appointments by talking on the telephone or through online video conferencing. Emailing and texting may also be involved.
Follow the steps below to help make sure you get quality care in the brave new world of telemedicine:
1.) Before the appointment, make a list.
Dr. Mara Gordon is a family physician in Camden, New Jersey. She now sees the majority of her patients virtually.
“Even for in-person visits, I always recommend that my patients write down a list of two or three issues they want to address, so they won’t forget anything important,” she said. “But this is especially vital when the visit is via phone or video-chat, where, I’ve noticed, my patients are more likely to lose their train of thought.”
2.) Take and send a photo of symptoms.
If you have visual symptoms, take a picture of them and send them to your doctor.
This might include rashes, swelling, a lump, or a discoloration. If possible, document the progression, taking pictures as the symptom changes. Note the time each photo was taken.
3.) Take care of routine issues before the visit.
Medication refills, notes from a doctor that are required by your employer or insurer, or other paperwork may not even require a telemedicine visit.
Sign up for your doctor’s online patient portal, if it’s offered. That’s a secure app that’s connected to your medical record. It allows you to see your test results and request appointments.
You can often ask for medication refills that way without needing to be seen. Ask for an extended supply of the medicines you take routinely cut down on trips to the pharmacy. Many insurers recently relaxed rules, so it’s now possible to keep a larger supply on hand.
You can also use the patient portal to submit any scanned forms you need completed. That way you can spend the virtual visit going over any questions or details with your doctor.
4.) Call from a quiet place.
“So many of the telemedicine appointments I’ve fielded during the coronavirus pandemic have been tough for a simple reason: It was hard to hear,” said Dr. Gordon.
Try to find a quiet place with good cell phone reception to receive your doctor’s call. If you’re using Facetime, WhatsApp, or another application with video, test it before your visit. That way, you can get the bugs worked out ahead of time.
5.) Don’t play phone tag.
Typically, for telemedicine appointments, your doctor’s office will contact you—you won’t contact them. That means you need to be prepared to answer your phone or be online at the time of your appointment.
Be sure to pick up, even if the call comes from an unknown number. Make sure you’ve disabled any spam blockers or functions that reject calls from private numbers.
6.) Use health tech to your advantage.
Have on hand any medical devices your doctor has prescribed or recommended, such as a thermometer, scale, a blood pressure monitor or, if you have diabetes, a glucometer.
Your doctor may ask you to take readings during your virtual visit.
If you need blood work, you may be asked to stop by a testing lab for the blood draw. Many labs now allow patients to get in and out without sitting in a waiting room.
7.) Know when to ask for an office visit.
Telemedicine works well for routine issues. But for complex or serious problems, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for an in-person visit.
Telemedicine also doesn’t work for preventative procedures such as Pap smears, colonoscopies, and mammograms. Many of these non-emergency in-patient screenings have been put on hold during the pandemic.
Dr. Gary LeRoy is an associate professor of family medicine at Wright State University and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
He tells his patients: “If you feel as though this is a … situation that can’t wait, that would make you pick up and go to the urgent care or the hospital, you need to be giving me a call.”
Editor’s Note: Discover the simple ancient health practice that researchers believe may offer a “ray of hope” in the fight against COVID-19. It takes just minutes a day.