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The telemedicine guide to health
Virtual appointments can be an important part of getting and staying well. Here’s how technology is making it easier to get the care you need.
There will always be times when you’ll need to see your health care provider in person. After all, you don’t have an x-ray machine in your house. And your virtual doctor can’t view your inner ear no matter how great the resolution is on your screen. That said, a surprising number of services do work remotely.
“Virtual health care is efficient for busy people. You can talk to a doctor sooner and catch an issue before it becomes a bigger problem,” says Michelle Ogunwole, MD. She’s an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “While there are some circumstances where seeing you in person is best, there is value in connecting through a screen, even to discuss important lifestyle issues which can affect health, like sleep,” she says.
After the pandemic hit in 2020, telemedicine — health care delivered using remote technology such as a computer or smartphone — became a necessity. It allowed providers to care for patients while lowering everyone’s risk of exposure to COVID-19. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in March 2020, telehealth visits jumped 154% compared with March 2019.
Two years later, it’s clear that telemedicine is here to stay — and it comes with plenty of upsides. What follows is a look at the benefits of telemedicine, the options available and tips to make the most of a remote appointment.
Benefits of telemedicine
Here are some of the pros of logging on to an app or a website to connect with a health care provider:
Convenience. Virtual visits can fit more easily into a busy day, letting you “see” a doctor sooner than you might have otherwise. You also cut the travel time to and from the office. And scheduling your appointment, which you can do day or night, is also more convenient — no waiting on hold with the front desk.
Faster diagnosis. Getting guidance right away means you may be able to head off issues before they become serious, says Dr. Ogunwole. Say the doctor determines that you’re dealing with insomnia or a migraine. Being prescribed the right medication sooner can help you avoid complications.
Comfort. It can be easier to talk about sensitive issues, such as sexual health or mental health, from the comfort of your home. And if you’re not feeling well, being able to dial in means you don’t need to spend precious energy dragging yourself to the doctor’s office.
Safety. You won’t need to sit in a waiting room with other patients who may have an infection. And if you’re contagious, you won’t place others at risk.
Drawbacks of telemedicine
It’s important to note, though, that not everyone has the opportunity and ability to use telemedicine services.
“It is possible that some communities don’t have equal access to telemedicine, since it requires internet connectivity and digital literacy,” says Dr. Ogunwole, who’s a health equity researcher. Some people may not be able to afford a computer, a smartphone or an internet connection. And older adults may not be as skilled in using telehealth.
Bottom line: Not every person, household and community can take advantage of digital access, so in-person health care visits may be the best and only option for some.
Health care options for telemedicine
You have several ways to access digital health services and fill gaps in your care:
Your primary care doctor. You may already be familiar with telemedicine if your doctor started or expanded this option in 2020 or 2021. Perhaps you logged on to talk to your doctor about possible COVID-19 symptoms or to secure a prescription refill.
Urgent care. A telehealth appointment is a good option for care that needs same-day attention — if it’s not an emergency and you don’t need an exam right away. It’s also handy if you can’t make an appointment with your primary care doctor quickly. The Optum Store offers an easy virtual visit service for urgent-care needs — you can often get a same-day appointment.
Prescription services. You can talk to a licensed health care professional to get a prescription and arrange prescription delivery from anywhere. If you’re a good fit for the medication, you can get prescriptions for any number of conditions and needs, including hormonal birth control, erectile dysfunction and hair loss.
Specialists. Certain specialties, such as dermatology and nutritional counseling, are made for telemedicine. Edith Yang, RD, founder of Healthy Mission Dietitian, says telemedicine has made a major impact on her clients in the past few years.
“With telehealth, I’m able to reach a much larger number of people,” says Yang, who’s based in Monrovia, California. “That’s particularly true for those in rural areas or who are homebound and may not have had access to specialists in the past.”
Mental health. The telehealth options for counseling are booming, and many people find they may be more comfortable talking to a therapist while in a familiar environment such as their own living room. (If you need help managing your mental health, connect with one of our licensed therapists for virtual care. Start your free assessment.)
How to make the most of a telemedicine visit
If you haven’t waded into telehealth services, knowing where to start might feel overwhelming. Here are some tips to get you comfortable in no time:
Talk to your provider’s office and ask about options. You may first need to sign up through a health care system portal, for example.
Check your tech. Before your appointment, make sure you can connect. You don’t want any technical hiccups during the call. Also, position your device or computer in a way that allows your health care practitioner to see your face clearly. Be sure the lighting is bright enough to clearly view the issue at hand.
Write down your questions and concerns in advance. Like any appointment, it’s crucial that you feel you’re being heard. Prep for your “visit” the same way you would for an in-person checkup. Keep in mind that just because it’s virtual doesn't mean you have more time with a provider. It’s important to stay focused on your goals for the visit.
Include a family member if necessary. Having another person on the call can help with information gathering and questions. There are also practical concerns. If you need to show a doctor a rash or mole on your back, you may need someone to position the camera.
Ask about next steps. In some cases, you may need a follow-up appointment that’s in person, especially if a lab test or imaging is needed. Or you might need to schedule another telemedicine call. Make sure you end the visit knowing your action items for care.
These visits might feel awkward at first, but they’re like any other new activity — the more often they happen, the more comfortable you’re likely to feel. The important thing is that you’re getting the care you need, wherever you happen to be.
Considering online treatment for anxiety or depression? Read our guide "Virtual therapy for mental health."
Telehealth increase data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (March 2020). “Trends in the Use of Telehealth During the Emergence of the COVID-19 Pandemic”
Appointment tips: American Medical Association (2021). "What Doctors Wish Patients Knew to Make the Most of Telehealth"
Benefits of telemedicine: Johns Hopkins Medicine (n.d.). "Benefits of Telemedicine"
Telemedicine and equity: Health Affairs (2020). “No Patient Left Behind”