What Is Telemedicine?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 14, 2023
7 min read

Telemedicine is a general term that covers all of the ways you and your doctor can use technology to communicate without being in the same room. It can include: 

  • Phone calls or video chats where you talk live with your health care provider 
  • Using email or another secure system to send messages and receive responses 
  • Remote monitoring that lets your doctor check up on you without your leaving your home. For example, a device might take your vital signs and send them to your doctor.

Telemedicine vs. telehealth: People also call it telehealth, digital medicine, e-health, or m-health (for “mobile”). It's all the same thing. 

Telemedicine is especially useful if you are managing a chronic health condition. Types of care you might get via telemedicine include: 

  • Results of lab tests or X-rays
  • Managing a mental health condition 
  • Dealing with a recurring problem like migraines or a urinary tract infection 
  • Urgent care issues like a cough, cold, or stomachache
  • Managing prescriptions 
  • Diagnosing skin conditions 
  • Physical or occupational therapy 
  • Treatment and follow-up for attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Remote monitoring of conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure 

You can have telemedicine appointments to:

  • Follow up on an issue
  • Talk to your therapist or psychiatrist 
  • Order tests or find out the results

Information you can send to your doctor

Your doctor might ask you to send information that will help with your diagnosis and treatment. Examples include:

  • Vital numbers like your weight, blood pressure, or blood sugar reading 
  • Photos of a skin condition or wound
  • A list of your symptoms and when they started
  • Records from another provider, such as an X-ray

Information your doctor can send to you

Examples of things you might get from your doctor include: 

  • Reminders about exercises or medication 
  • Tips on diet, exercise, and stress management
  • Instructions on how to manage your condition at home 

How telemedicine is used in nursing

A nurse may be the person getting your vital numbers and passing them along to the doctor. They might use a remote stethoscope to listen to your heart or check out a wound or skin condition via camera. 

Check your insurance plan to find out what’s covered under telemedicine, including your doctor and urgent care, plus copays and other fees. 

If you don’t have health insurance or if your coverage doesn’t include telemedicine, you might be able to pay a fixed fee to use it.

The same rules that protect your privacy during an in-person appointment apply when you use telemedicine. 

You'll use your regular internet provider or phone service. But doctors usually have a secure portal to call patients and exchange messages. 

For your appointment, you'll want to be in a room away from other people, in your car, or even outside with no one around. If you can't find a private spot, you may want to reschedule the appointment or ask the doctor to chat, text, or email.

To protect the information you're sharing online, follow these tips:

  • Only enter your personal information on a secure site. You should see a lock icon in the address bar.
  • Keep anti-virus software up to date on your devices.
  • Use a password to keep your wireless network private.
  • Don't use public Wi-Fi for telemedicine appointments or to access your doctor's portal. 
  • Don't use shared devices for telemedicine (other than those shared with family).
  • If a new provider contacts you, don't set up a telemedicine appointment or enter any information until you've confirmed their identity with your regular doctor.

Telemedicine is becoming more popular, because it has some advantages over in-office visits. Here are some of the benefits: 

  • You can avoid being around people in the waiting room who might have contagious conditions
  • Your doctor can see you wherever you are. 
  • It cuts down on travel, time away from work, and the need for child care while you see the doctor.
  • You may be able to get a telemedicine appointment more quickly than an in-person one. 
  • You can more easily get access to a specialist who may practice far from where you live.

If your doctor offers the option, all you need to use telemedicine is reliable internet and a phone, smartphone, or computer.

Telemedicine is a convenient tool for everyone, but it can be especially important if you:

  • Live in a rural area or far from your doctor’s office
  • Have limited movement, time, or transportation
  • Need medical care while you’re away from home

Depending on what your doctor offers, you can get medical services in different ways. Two of the most common are:

  • A patient portal. With the security of a username and password, a patient portal lets you send and get emails from your doctor or nurse, ask for prescription refills, and set up appointments. Your doctor can also share your lab or imaging test results and tell you what they mean. This is often faster than waiting to talk to them on the phone.
  • Virtual appointments. Some doctors can let you have an appointment through a phone call or video conference. You can often have these meetings with mental and behavioral health professionals and urgent care clinics as well.

Telemedicine can do many things. But it can’t replace all doctor visits.

If you have a long-term illness, you can use it to share home readings like blood pressure or blood sugar levels and to talk to your doctor about them.

Virtual urgent care can make it easier for you to find out whether you need to go to the doctor’s office. If it’s a common cold, you can stay home. If you have sinus pain, your doctor may be able to walk you through the process of pressing on different parts of your face to figure out what’s causing it.

On the other hand, a sore throat may need an in-person test called a throat culture. An earache could be a sign of an infection that needs closer care. Or you might need a shot of medication to treat your condition.

You can’t have surgery online. But your surgeon can use telemedicine to check how you’re healing.

Sometimes, an in-person exam is the only way for your doctor to be sure about your diagnosis.

You can start by asking your own doctor some questions: 

  • Does the office offer telemedicine appointments?
  • Does telemedicine make sense for my health issues? 
  • How do I schedule an appointment?

The Medicare Care Compare tool can help you find providers who offer telemedicine appointments. Your insurance company is another source of information on telemedicine. You can find information on your insurer's website or by calling them.

If you don't have insurance, or aren't sure you can pay for a telemedicine appointment, a health center can help you. They provide care to people whether they can pay or not, and the fees are based on your income. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration has an online tool you can use to find one at findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov.

You make a telemedicine appointment the same way you do an in-person appointment. Speak to the provider's office, and ask for a telemedicine appointment. 

Check for instructions

Before your appointment, your provider might send you instructions by email or text. Be sure to read those ahead of your appointment, so you have time to get set up.

Try the technology ahead of time

Telemedicine comes in many forms. Before you hop onto a virtual appointment  

Prepare to punt

Remember that you may start with telemedicine but still end up in your doctor’s office. That can be frustrating, but it’ll help you feel better faster.

 Tips for a successful telemedicine video visit include: 

  • Make sure the lighting is good and the camera is level, so your provider can see your face. 
  • Close other applications on your computer that might slow down your connection. 
  • Reduce background noise by turning off alarms, the TV, and anything else that might be distracting.

Troubleshooting your telemedicine appointment

Technology doesn't always work perfectly the first time you try it. If you're having trouble, try these steps: 

  • Make sure your device is plugged in or charged. 
  • Try restarting your device. 
  • Make sure that your internet connection is strong. 
  • Try connecting with a different device. 
  • Call your provider's office for help.

Telemedicine can be a good way to manage a chronic condition or your prescriptions, talk to your therapist or psychiatrist, or deal with urgent but not life-threatening issues like colds and urinary tract infections. Telemedicine can be especially helpful if you have trouble getting to your doctor appointments or live far from a specialist. To get the most out of your telemedicine appointment, read any instructions ahead of time and make sure you're set up in a private spot. 


How is telemedicine used in hospitals?  

If you're at your local hospital with a health emergency, telemedicine can let a specialist far away see you. This is helpful for people who live in remote locations. 

What are telemedicine types?

Telemedicine can include video visits with your health care provider, using a secure portal to exchange information, and remote monitoring of things like your blood pressure or blood sugar. 

What is the aim of telemedicine?

Telemedicine offers patients the convenience of seeing a health care provider without leaving home. For doctors, it can make their practices more efficient, allowing them to treat more people.