In the past, the only way to see a doctor was to go to their office. Today you can have a doctor appointment without leaving your home, thanks to telehealth.
Telehealth uses technologies like your computer, smartphone, or tablet to deliver care from a distance. Telemedicine is a more specific term doctors use when they diagnose and treat people remotely.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, more Americans switched from in-person doctor visits to telehealth visits to avoid catching the virus. Around 40% of Americans surveyed said they plan to keep seeing their doctors virtually after the pandemic is over.
Sometimes telehealth is an easier and more convenient option than an office visit. But there are times when it's better to see your doctor in person.
What Are the Pros of Telehealth?
Telehealth has a few advantages over in-person care.
It's convenient. Driving to your doctor's office and sitting in a waiting room takes time. Depending on how busy your doctor's office is, you could spend 20 minutes or longer waiting for your appointment. Telehealth is faster. You get on the call right at your appointment time. Because you can talk to your doctor from anywhere, you can avoid taking time off from work or hiring a babysitter to watch your kids.
It's more comfortable. Your home is more familiar than a doctor's office. It may be easier to talk to your doctor when you feel comfortable.
It's safer. Sitting in a doctor's office filled with sick people could expose you to COVID-19 and other infections. That exposure could be extra risky if you have a chronic illness, a weakened immune system, or you're pregnant.
The quality is often the same. You can get the same high level of care from home as you would in your doctor's office. In one survey, nearly 63% of patients and almost 60% of doctors said they thought virtual visits were just as effective as in-person ones.
What Are the Cons?
Telehealth has a few downsides, too.
Some types of visits don't work from a distance. Your doctor can see you over a computer screen, but they can't do a breast exam or listen to your heart with a stethoscope. Those hands-on parts of the exam need to be done in person. You also need to go into the office for blood tests, X-rays, and other imaging tests.
It could risk your privacy. Most telehealth visits use secure technology to protect your personal health data, but no safeguards are 100%. There's always a small chance that hackers could get access to your information.
You need the technology. To have a virtual doctor visit, you need a computer, smartphone, or tablet. You also need a strong internet connection. Not everyone has the technology to make these visits happen.
It's harder to form a connection. A virtual visit can never match a personal exam when it comes to connecting with your doctor. If you've just started seeing a new doctor, face-to-face visits are the best way for you to get to know each other.
It might not be covered. More health insurance companies have started to pay for telehealth visits since COVID-19. But some remote services may not be covered, leaving you with high out-of-pocket costs.
When Is One Better Than the Other?
Whether to consider telehealth or in-person visits depends on the reason you're seeing a doctor.
Telehealth visits are good for:
- Follow-up visits after you've already seen your doctor
- An exam of easy-to-see areas, like your eyes or skin
- Counseling and other mental health services
- Prescription refills
- Monitoring chronic conditions like diabetes or asthma
In-person visits are better for:
- Your first time seeing a new doctor
- Exams that need a hands-on approach, like feeling for a lump or listening to your lungs
- Blood tests, X-rays, and other imaging scans
Will Insurance Cover My Visit?
Many states have expanded health insurance coverage for telehealth.Some insurers have lowered out-of-pocket costs for these visits or cut them entirely. Whether insurance companies will keep paying for telehealth after the pandemic ends is unknown.
Because coverage can vary a lot based on where you live and the type of health insurance you have, it's a good idea to check before your first telehealth visit. Call your insurance company or your doctor's office to find out which services are covered and how much you'll have to pay out of pocket.
How Common Will Telehealth Be After the Pandemic?
The pandemic has increased the use and popularity of telehealth. In 2019, only 8% of Americans surveyed had ever tried telehealth. Today about one-third of Americans have seen a doctor remotely. And 76% of those who have used telehealth say they want to keep using it after the pandemic is over.
Telehealth is likely to stick around after COVID. We still don't know what form it will take and who will use it. To keep offering telehealth, doctors will need the right technology and health insurance companies will have to cover these visits.
How Can You Talk to Your Doctor About Telehealth?
If you'd like to try telehealth, talk to your doctor. Ask whether virtual visits will work for your condition. Also find out whether your health insurance will cover the cost of these visits and how your doctor's office will protect your private health information online.
Keep in mind that a virtual visit may not always be possible. If you do need to go into the doctor's office, ask about ways to make it more comfortable and convenient. For example, your doctor might have late hours so that you don’t have to miss work. And if your doctor has more than one office, you may be able to visit the one closest to your home for more convenience.