Telemedicine allows you to access medical care virtually for a wide range of healthcare conditions and concerns. These online visits offer many benefits, including convenience, reduced costs, and greater access to care.
Telemedicine is also called telehealth, evisits, e-health, or mhealth (m is for mobile). It’s the delivery of medical care from a distance. In other words, it’s healthcare that doctors provide virtually, outside the typical doctor’s office setting and face-to-face appointment.
Telemedicine may seem new. The widespread use of video conferencing has made it more common. But in reality, telemedicine has been around for many years.
For decades, doctors could perform a consult on a telephone call. Then, emails provided a way for patients to connect with their doctors. Although you can still choose to communicate with your doctor via phone or email, live telemedicine has become increasingly common.
Telemedicine isn’t just for busy workers. Originally, this kind of remote care was a great option for people living in rural or underserved communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a safer way to get medical care.
Increasingly, though, it’s become a helpful tool for people who can’t carve out time to commute to a doctor’s office and sit in a waiting room.
This article takes a closer look at how telemedicine works, along with its benefits and risks, and the steps you can take to ensure an effective telemedicine appointment.
The terms “telemedicine” and “telehealth” are often used interchangeably, but the two have some differences.
“Telehealth” is a broader term. It’s defined as the use of technology in all healthcare functions. That may include electronic portals for storing or transferring health records. It can also include devices that can remotely monitor vital measurements.
Telemedicine is a type of telehealth. It is the use of information or communication technologies to get clinical services from your doctor. The goal of telemedicine is to deliver care and hopefully improve health outcomes.
To put it another way, telemedicine is the use of technology to bypass the traditional in-office visit and still get good results.
By any definition, telemedicine is designed to let patients have access to a healthcare professional in a more timely manner. That often means an appointment without the need to take time off work or find child care, commute, and wait in a traditional office or clinic.
It can also be useful for people who do not have transportation or people who live too far from a clinic or doctor’s office to get routine care.
Today, doctors provide telemedicine primarily with video calls. The internet makes these types of interactions easier. People can use a smartphone, tablet, computer, or another connectable device.
Telemedicine has made medical appointments more accessible. It allows you to have access to a medical professional in a timely manner, via a computer, tablet, or phone screen, from the comfort of your home or workplace.
How a telemedicine appointment works
The way telemedicine appointments work can vary from one healthcare system to another, but they generally follow a format similar to the one below:
- To start, you will connect to an online portal. There, you’ll provide information about what symptoms you’re experiencing or what services you need. Then, the healthcare professional will enter the portal.
- You and the doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, or another medical professional will go over your medical history and discuss your symptoms or concerns.
- Your healthcare professional may also ask you to take measurements like temperature, blood pressure, or heart rate. If you have the tools to do that, this can be helpful.
- For surgery follow-up appointments, your doctor may have asked you to keep a series of monitoring devices at your home. These devices send results to your doctor or healthcare team. Doctors can connect remotely to monitoring tools for blood pressure, oxygen, weight, and more so that they can have real-time readings.
- At the end of your online visit, your doctor may prescribe medication for you, which they can send directly to your pharmacy.
- If the virtual appointment is inconclusive, or if your doctor feels it’s important to connect with you face-to-face, they may ask you to make a follow-up in-person appointment. On the other hand, if you and your doctor feel satisfied with what you covered during your virtual visit, you can end your session and log off the portal.
Telemedicine is not meant to replace in-person, face-to-face care. But it can be a good option for many types of care. These include:
- regular check-ups for ongoing or recurring health conditions
- treatment of infectious conditions, like a cold, flu, or COVID-19
- treatment of minor conditions, like a cough, allergies, minor back pain, sprains, or strains
- dermatology appointments for the treatment of skin conditions
- mental health care services, including therapy, medication management, and counseling
- monitoring a new medication you may have started taking
- conversations about results from tests your doctor ordered
- surgery follow-up
- consultations with a specialist
The use of telemedicine is not limited to these services, however.
Radiologists may use telemedicine to show results of scans or X-rays to a patient. Oncologists can convene a consultation with a patient and other members of a cancer care team. A neurologist can use telemedicine to provide stroke recovery analysis.
When to get in-person care
Many types of conditions, symptoms, and follow-up appointments can be addressed using telemedicine visits. However, some symptoms and medical conditions require immediate, in-person care. Go to the nearest emergency room or call 911 immediately if you have symptoms such as:
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- weakness or numbness on one side
- slurred speech
- fever with a rash
- severe bleeding
- serious burns
- broken bones or dislocated joints
Additionally, if you have abdominal pain, telemedicine is not the best option, since you will require an abdominal exam, which doctors cannot perform virtually. Be sure to schedule an in-person appointment with your doctor for any issues related to pain in your abdomen.
Telemedicine offers a wide range of benefits, with the ultimate goal of better health outcomes. These benefits are also the reasons why so many people often opt for this type of care.
The benefits of telemedicine can include:
- less time loss with commuting and waiting
- more efficient appointments
- money saving on transportation, parking, and lost work
- an ability to attend appointments at times that may be inconvenient for in-person visits
- greater access to care
- access to specialists outside your local area
- better medication adherence
- fewer urgent care visits or hospital readmissions
- shorter hospital stays with at-home monitoring capabilities
Telemedicine appointments do have one risk that in-person visits don’t — security breaches. Most offices use verified platforms. These help protect patient privacy and appointment security. But hackers may access these appointments or records.
You can help boost the security of your online devices by making sure your computer, tablet, phone, or other devices have up-to-date security software.
Additionally, lagging internet connections or technical difficulties can interrupt appointments and make it harder for you and your doctor to communicate properly.
If you don’t have a reliable Internet connection, it’s a good idea to get to a location that has a stronger connection for your appointment. This can help ensure that your doctor gets an accurate picture of your health and doesn’t miss any vital clues or information about your condition.
Keeps these tips in mind for your next virtual healthcare appointment:
- Check your internet connection: Poor bandwidth may interfere with your appointment. Try to boost your signal or get to a location with better internet connectivity.
- Familiarize yourself with the software: You may need to download new software to safely connect with the virtual appointment. Make sure you do this before the appointment and test it to ensure it works.
- Find a quiet spot with good lighting: Try to find an area in your home or virtual location that doesn’t have much background noise and where you won’t have disruptions. Good lighting is especially important if your doctor needs to check a skin rash, swelling, bumps, or bruises on your skin.
- Take photos of a skin condition: If you have a skin issue, like a rash, acne, sore, or unusual mark, it’s especially helpful if you can share a high resolution photograph with your doctor. Take the photo of your skin issue before your appointment, making sure it’s as clear and detailed as possible, and upload it to your doctor’s online portal before your appointment.
- Bring a list of questions: Just as you would for an in-person visit, make notes for your appointment. This can include information about what you’ve been experiencing. It can also include questions you have about your symptoms, treatment, or test results.
- Recognize limitations: Virtual appointments can be helpful, but try not to expect the same kind of outcome as an in-person visit. A healthcare professional cannot touch or feel your body during one of these visits, which does limit some elements of diagnosis.
- Be on time: It’s a common courtesy but also necessary. If you’re late, you may miss your appointment entirely and have to reschedule.
- Put safety first: Make sure you can safely talk with your doctor during your appointment. Avoid driving, using machinery, or multitasking during your virtual visit with your doctor.
Telemedicine can be a useful tool for both healthcare professionals and patients. You can get access to medical care on your time without the burdens of commuting, transportation costs, waiting, and missing work.
But telehealth does have its limits, and it is not a perfect fit for every person, condition, or situation.
Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this type of healthcare with your doctor or healthcare professional. Together, you can decide if and when this service may be beneficial for you and your health and well-being.