How Does Telemedicine Work?

Doctors have connected medicine with technology for years, and so have you. With a few clicks, you can research conditions and symptoms online. You can also have nearly anything -- prescriptions, supplements, or bacon-shaped Band-Aids -- delivered to your door. But to see your provider, you still had to go to their office and sit in a germ-filled waiting room.

Now, with telemedicine, technology can make health care something it’s rarely been: convenient.

What Is Telemedicine?

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 includes phone calls, video chats, emails, and text messages. People also call it telehealth, digital medicine, e-health, or m-health (for “mobile”).

Who Uses It?

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’s especially helpful 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

How Telemedicine Works

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.

For Many Issues, but Not All

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.

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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.

How to Get the Most Out of Telemedicine

Try the technology ahead of time. Telemedicine comes in many forms. Before you hop on a virtual appointment with your doctor, do a trial run to make sure you understand the system and work out any kinks. You may have to download an app, software, or program. You might also have to wait for your turn in a virtual “waiting room.”

Be prepared. Whether you have a call or a video appointment, write down your symptoms, medicines you’ve taken, and questions you have so you don’t forget anything when speaking to your doctor.

Beef up your bandwidth. Are there certain places in your house where a Wi-Fi signal is stronger than others? Technical problems, such as frozen screens and a slow connection speed, can quickly make an easy appointment difficult. Be sure you’re in the spot with the strongest signal. A phone call can be a good backup plan.
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.

What Telemedicine Services Can I Use?

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

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on March 27, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Joseph C. Kvedar, MD, Boston.

Harvard Health Publishing: “Can telemedicine help flatten the curve of COVID-19?”

Mayo Clinic: “Telemedicine: Technology meets health care.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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