Medically Approved

What to expect at your virtual care appointment

6 minute read
Person getting virtual care

If you’ve never had a telehealth appointment, you might feel nervous to try it. Don’t stress — we’ve got reassuring answers to your biggest questions.

Sydney Shaw

By Sydney Shaw

When you hear, “The doctor will see you now,” you might not picture the physician viewing your face on a screen. But telemedicine is an easy and affordable health care option that has become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic. When it was safer to stay home, people could still attend medical appointments remotely via their computer or smartphone screen. This allowed them to get the care and advice they needed from the comfort of their couch. More than 2 years later, many providers are still seeing patients virtually.

“The biggest selling point is convenience,” says Ajfar Sherif, MD, medical director of Optum Virtual Urgent Care. “You can just go to our website and see a provider within minutes. That kind of accessibility is very important during these times.”

So what is it like to “visit” a doctor from your computer or smartphone? If you’ve never had a telehealth appointment, you might feel a bit anxious about trying it. That’s why we asked virtual care doctors from the Optum Store to put you at ease. Here’s what to expect on the other end of your video call with a doctor.

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Who are the providers?

There’s no shortage of virtual care doctors. In fact, your own primary care doctor might be scheduling telehealth appointments.

“If you have an established primary care physician, most of them are doing virtual visits,” says Britta Reierson, MD, medical director of the Well Clinics and Optum Everycare. “A lot of health plans give you the option to get virtual care.”

There are also online clinics, such as Optum Virtual Care, where anyone can schedule an appointment with a medical provider who is licensed in their state.

What conditions can be treated via virtual care?

Maybe you have a nasty cough, an itchy skin rash or a stomach bug you can’t kick. Or you’re experiencing a new side effect from your blood pressure medication. Or you think you might have COVID-19. Virtual care providers can assist in dealing with a range of health concerns such as these. (Read more here.)

Telehealth is also helpful for monitoring health issues such as medication changes or chronic health conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Telemedicine appointments are also handy when you want to see a specialist, such as a dermatologist or a mental health counselor.

But there are some conditions and tests that require an in-person exam. Obviously, you can’t get a blood test or an X-ray done over a computer screen. And some other ailments require a hands-on approach.

“I might say to a patient, ‘Someone really needs to look in your child’s ears. I can’t do that right now, so I’d love for you to go to an urgent care,’ and I’ll help them navigate finding their nearest clinic,” Dr. Reierson says.

Medical emergencies should never be handled through telemedicine. “If you’re having chest pain, shortness of breath, stroke-like symptoms or severe abdominal pain, you should go to your local emergency room,” Dr. Sherif says.

If you experience an emergency while you’re in the middle of a telehealth appointment, your provider will stay on the call and make sure you get help. “I would say, ‘I need you to call 911 right now. I’m going to stay on with you until I know that you’re taken care of,’” Dr. Reierson says.

I’m nervous about the technology part of a virtual visit. What if I can’t figure it out?

Technology issues are one of the biggest barriers to virtual care, according to Dr. Reierson. “Maybe your Wi-Fi connection isn’t good, or maybe the audio quality isn’t good,” she says.

Doing a test run ahead of time can make you feel more comfortable and confident. Before your appointment, make sure your phone or laptop is fully charged. Check that you have a solid Wi-Fi connection. Find a quiet spot in your home that has good lighting. Position your computer screen or your smartphone so that your provider can see you clearly on camera.

When you schedule an appointment, you’ll receive a reminder email that includes the time and date of your visit. The email will also include a link that will connect you to your provider, Dr. Reierson says. You can click the link right from inside the email to start your appointment.

Once the patient has scheduled a time slot for virtual care appointment, they’re given a questionnaire. This allows the provider to see the reason for their visit, Dr. Sherif says. The patient can also choose which provider they want to see in the given time slot.

Once your appointment time starts, the provider will wait up to 5 minutes. What happens if the patient hasn’t shown up at that time? A virtual health assistant will reach out to reschedule, Dr. Sherif says.

Do I need to have anything prepared? How does my appointment begin?

It’s a good idea to write down any questions you might want to ask the doctor ahead of time. But besides the fact that you’re communicating through a screen, the process is pretty much the same as a traditional medical visit, Dr. Reierson says.

“Let’s say you arrive at a brick-and-mortar doctor’s office and you check in. The virtual process is no different — you check in online,” she says. In an office, you might be greeted by a nurse who brings you to an exam room. In a virtual appointment, you get directed to a waiting room, where you can confirm that your camera and audio are working. You click the button to begin the appointment on your end. Your provider does the same thing. Your provider will then appear on screen and say hello. Now you’re ready to start talking.

At the start of a virtual care visit, the provider will ask you questions the same way as in a traditional doctor’s office.

“We do the full triage process ourselves,” says Dr. Sherif. What does that mean exactly? Your provider will take down the basics, such as your height, weight and any current medications you’re taking. Then they’ll ask what brings you into the “office” and how long you’ve been experiencing your symptoms. You’ll also have an opportunity to upload any relevant pictures (for example, of a rash).

“The process really is so similar,” Dr. Reierson says. “Sometimes, if you get really involved in a visit, you kind of forget that you’re not in the office sitting side by side.”

Can a doctor really examine me over a video call? How does that work?

Doctors can’t physically touch you during a virtual care appointment. So they’ll ask you questions and talk you through methods to examine yourself on camera. That might sound intimidating, but don’t worry. Your doctor will guide you through the entire process, step by step.

“Say a patient’s throat hurts,” Dr. Sherif says. “We’ll ask them, ‘Have you looked in your throat? If not, take a look and let me know what you see.’ Then we’ll walk them through a further physical examination and show them how to palpate their lymph nodes. We’ll ask, ‘Do they feel tender or enlarged?’”

There are lots of creative ways to examine a patient and come to a diagnosis through virtual care, Dr. Reierson says. Many conditions, such as depression or anxiety, don’t even require a physical exam.

“Virtual care is a fantastic avenue for behavioral health needs because it’s talk-based,” Dr. Reierson says.

After I talk to the doctor and get my diagnosis, what happens next? Is there any follow-up?

Rest assured, your virtual care provider won’t leave you hanging once your video call ends. If you need a follow-up appointment, they will walk you through the process of scheduling one. You can even get medication and lab work prescribed after a telehealth appointment. (If you don’t need your medication right away, you can order it through the Optum Store and have it delivered right to your door.)

“We place the order through our electronic medical records for lab work, imaging and prescriptions,” Dr. Sherif says. “Prescriptions are sent immediately, so within 30 minutes to an hour, the pharmacy should have it ready.”

The Optum Store can help you save money on your medication and deliver it right to your door. Get started here.

Additional source
Telehealth overview: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2022). What Is Telehealth?