Local health care providers introduce telehealth services to help ease the hassles of getting to the doctor’s office.
Doctors are back to making house calls. They’re not showing up at doorsteps, but they are appearing on mobile phones or computer screens for telehealth services.
Telehealth uses digital information and communication to provide remote health care services and monitoring. It ranges from online doctor visits to remote collection of health data, such as blood sugar, heart rate, or blood pressure.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth visits were primarily used to provide rural patients access to medical specialists not available in the area. Patients traveled to a local clinic with video calling that allowed them to speak with doctors miles away. During the pandemic, telehealth has been used as a way for people to avoid the doctor’s office and reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of telehealth visits increased by 50% in the first quarter of 2020. A 154% increase took place during the last week of March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Of course, not all visits can be converted to telehealth visits. You wouldn’t want to use virtual services for life-threatening conditions, potential broken bones, signs of a heart attack, or difficulty breathing. But rashes, allergies, infections, headaches, bug bites, and cuts are good places to start if you’re new to remote visits. Next time your child wakes up with a rash, you could schedule a telehealth visit, get a diagnosis, and have a prescription delivered without ever leaving your home.
“We recommend you have a list of questions and concerns prepared to make the most of your appointment.”Lindsay Huhman
Access for Telehealth
Accessibility can vary depending on your health care provider, so ask them their preference. Many local doctors want to see, touch, or hear symptoms before making a diagnosis. Others, such as mental health professionals, may be more willing to meet you online.
Some providers don’t have access to the proper secure technology to connect with you online. Others want to meet with you in person because they know your health insurance won’t cover the online visit, or won’t cover it at the same rate as an in-person visit. Plus, your visit could lead to additional tests like X-rays or blood work that require a visit anyway.
“For many patients, telehealth can provide access to health care without the burden of traveling, taking time off work, or arranging childcare,” says Dr. Kate Williams, who specializes in family practice with Capital Region Physicians Primary Care Clinic. “Offering routine, follow-up care to patients in the comfort of familiar surroundings is convenient and time-saving. While not every provider-patient encounter can be done virtually, when it is appropriate, it can be a win-win for the provider and the patient.”
If you don’t have a local health care provider or lack health insurance, telehealth visits may be a good option for you. Teledoc, One Medical, and AmWell are some of the most popular options. Teledoc provides general medical visits 24/7 for $75 per visit or specialty visits for mental health, dermatology, or nutrition for $95 per visit. One Medical provides membership for $199 a year, giving users access to wellness and prevention services, as well as urgent, mental, and sexual health services. They also have a growing network of office locations throughout the U.S. AmWell provides urgent care visits for $79 per visit and specialty visits ranging from $79 to $279 for an initial visit. They have specialists in pediatrics, pregnancy and postpartum care, breastfeeding support, and menopause care.
Preparation for Telehealth
You’ll need a smartphone or device with internet access, as well as audio and visual capabilities, to conduct a telehealth visit.
“You prepare for a virtual visit similar to an in-person visit,” Lindsay Huhman, communications director for Capital Region Medical Center, says. “We recommend you have a list of questions and concerns prepared to make the most of your appointment.”
If you’re not going to your regular health provider, remember that the telehealth provider likely doesn’t have any of your previous health history, so you’ll be required to share your health history and current list of prescriptions.
“You’ll want to make a list of symptoms and their severity, keep track of health data — temperature, blood pressure, etc. — and make a list of chronic conditions and any medications you’re taking,” Lori Croy, communications director for the Missouri Department of Commerce and Insurance, says.
Preparing for a virtual visit can take a little more time than a regular office visit. You need to have all of your technology in order.
“You’ll want to have your phone or tablet fully charged as well as a reliable internet connection, and check to see if your physician’s office uses a specific app for telehealth. You should also have a paper and pen ready to take notes in case you have questions,” Lori says.
You don’t want to spend your visit working through technical issues. Review emails and texts for login instructions. Reduce your background noise by going to a quiet room. Limit the use of other phone or computer applications so you’re not distracted during the visit and your internet connection remains strong. Make sure you have plenty of light, your camera is steady, and you’re in comfortable clothes.
“It’s a good idea to log on to your virtual session early to ensure the technology is working as it should,” Lori says.
“It’s important for consumers to check with their insurer to make sure they know what is covered and what the cost-sharing is for them.”Lori Croy
Coverage Under Telehealth
Regardless of how you’re meeting a health care professional, there are costs involved.
“Just as with an in-person visit, there is a cost associated with telehealth. The costs will vary depending on insurance,” Lindsay says.
During the height of the pandemic, insurance companies waived some telehealth costs, but that is changing as we get back to normal.
“Most health insurers did waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits during the pandemic, but most have rolled that back and gone back to normal cost-sharing for telehealth,” Lori says. “It’s important for consumers to check with their insurer to make sure they know what is covered and what the cost-sharing is for them.”
Call the number on the back of your insurance card or log in to your insurance company’s secure site to check your coverage. If your local health care provider is not available, most insurance companies recommend using their virtual telehealth platforms. Your insurance company likely contracts with one or more virtual health care providers, such as Teledoc or Doctor on Demand, so it may be better to use those recommended providers rather than going online and choosing your own virtual provider. Even if a virtual visit costs a little more, it may be worth it if you consider lost wages and child care costs associated with traveling.
Not all virtual visits result in a prescription, but if yours does, the doctor can electronically submit prescriptions to the pharmacy of your choice. Just remember that prescriptions are not covered as part of your visit. You’ll have additional cost sharing for those.
Telehealth insurance coverage varies by state and insurance company, but the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled more conversations about expanding its use and coverage beyond urgent and mental health care. Patients can pick doctors online and build relationships with them as if it’s an in-person primary care visit.
“We can expect to see telehealth services expand extensively in the near future,” Katy says. “There are more and more players in the market, and some are not traditional health care organizations, such as Walmart and Amazon, which could disrupt the typical care delivery model. At Capital Region, we are poised to provide the most efficient and effective care to all the communities we serve.”