Patient’s Guide to Telehealth: How to Use Virtual Healthcare

As the world battles COVID-19, expanding healthcare access becomes more critical than ever. Learn how telehealth could help millions who need care, and how you can sign up, see a doctor, and get the treatment you need fast.

MEET THE EXPERTS

Scott Cohen
Scott
Cohen

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Scott W. Cohen, MD, FAAP, is a board certified pediatrician and the author of bestselling parenting guide Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. The co-founder of Beverly Hills Pediatrics, Dr. Cohen is an attending physician and a member of the teaching staff at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Dr. Cohen is also the co-founder of Kids Doctors on Call (KidsDOC), a pediatric telemedicine platform that connects families with their own pediatrician via live video calls.

Christine Stetler
Christine
Stetler

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Christine Stetler is a registered nurse and principal solutions architect with Allscripts FollowMyHealth. Christine is passionate about bringing innovation in healthcare technology directly to consumers to help them live their best lives. With 20+ years in a field that she loves, Christine has helped care for patients both directly and through technology.

ON THIS PAGE

Telehealth has been gaining in popularity even before the pandemic, especially in rural areas and to help patients who need minor care without a doctor’s visit. But with the coronavirus, virtual healthcare has taken on a new importance. More and more telehealth services are popping up to give patients care through video chat, phone call, and direct-to-pharmacy prescriptions. Here’s what you need to know to get acquainted with telehealth, get informed about your options, and get started for when you might need care quickly.

What Is Telehealth?

Telehealth is the use of the technology to deliver healthcare services to a different location than where the healthcare professional is located. This technology can include the use of internet, computers, smartphones, tablets, and software. While the terms “telehealth” and “telemedicine” are sometimes used interchangeably, they can refer to two different things. Telehealth is the broad term for remote delivery of all kinds of healthcare services, while telemedicine focuses more on clinical services, such as diagnosis and treatment.

Why Is Telehealth Critical?

It expands access to medical care, for everyone. For those who live near hospitals or urgent care clinics, getting medical treatment may have been easy before COVID-19. But now, if you have an ear infection, a skin rash, or anything unrelated to the coronavirus, in-person care is a tougher task. With telehealth, seeing and/or chatting with a doctor online makes it much easier to acquire the antibiotics or ointment you need to get your infection or rash in check.

Once the coronavirus outbreak is contained, telehealth should still maintain its importance. “In 5-10 years, telehealth will be ubiquitous, like online banking and social networking, and will be part of our daily life,” says Christine Stetler, RN and Principal Solutions Architect at AllScripts. “While the need to physically see patients will never end, the use cases will become well defined and far less than the instances for which Telehealth can be utilized.”

It’s not just the pandemic that is changing things. “COVID-19 and the generational preferences of Millennials are helping to drive this movement to telemedicine,” Ms. Stetler says. “Millennials are pushing for more digital health opportunities as they are accustomed to the immediacy, ease of use, and convenience that technology brings. Providers can also save a great deal of time by scheduling telehealth visits, and they might even be able to see more patients.”

What Services Are Offered via Telehealth?

As amazing as telehealth is, it can’t replace in-person interactions with healthcare providers. However, it still has various applications for the delivery of many types of medical services. These include:

Treating a chronic condition, like diabetes or hypertension

Patients can upload their blood sugars, blood pressure readings, and food or exercise journals for review by a doctor or nurse.

Providing mental health services

In many situations, mental health professionals can assess and treat patients through the use of videoconference software.

Diagnosis of basic and minor ailments, such as the cold, flu, or skin conditions

Patients can communicate their symptoms while videoconferencing technology allows the doctor to observe and assess the patient in a manner similar to what they would be doing with an in-person visit.

Telepharmacy

Patients can use videoconferencing to receive training or instruction from a pharmacist on taking a certain medication or implementing a particular treatment. Telepharmacy can also be used to order refills of prescriptions.

Follow up care

Telehealth offers a convenient method for doctors and nurses to check in on a patient and see how they’re progressing after a specific event, such as surgery.

When Should You Use Telehealth Services?

Telehealth is great for non-emergency situations when timing is not critical. It works well for obtaining routine or basic care, such as getting checked out for minor ailments, having a prescription refilled, or monitoring a patient’s health progress. This also means that unless instructed otherwise by a doctor or nurse, telehealth should not be used to treat the coronavirus.

Dr. Scott Cohen, a board-certified physician and founder of KidsDOC, agrees that there has never been a better time to look into telehealth. “Given the current environment with COVID 19, I would strongly encourage all patients to explore the telehealth services they have available to them. Limiting in-person contact and giving families access to telehealth calls with their physicians can help them decide the appropriate course of action for their children and ultimately better protect our patients, our doctors, and our communities.”

How to Get Started with Telehealth

You may cringe at the idea of logging onto an app or web portal for healthcare. And what about insurance? Is telehealth covered by my insurance plan, and does it work with all my providers and specialists? Getting started may seem difficult, but it’s not nearly as hard as it sounds. Here’s what you need to know.

STEP 1

Contact your health insurance provider

Although many insurance companies and plans cover telehealth services, always double check. Your insurer or your plan may have requirements or restrictions on the nature of the telehealth “visit” or how many times you can use the service in a given year. They may also have their own telehealth systems, which could mean a discount for the people they insure.

STEP 2

Get the right equipment

In many cases, all you need is a smartphone (or a computer) and an internet connection. Many telehealth visits can be done with a phone call, but if you plan on uploading any pictures the doctor may need to see, or if you think a video chat is in order, a broadband connection would be ideal.

STEP 3

Find the telehealth service you need

There are a number of telehealth services available. Your first stop in finding the right one should be a phone call or online visit to your primary care provider. If that’s who you want to see for care, find out if they have a preferred service. But if you’re not dead-set on using your PCP, a third-party app such as Teladoc may work just as well.

STEP 4

Download necessary software and apps

Some telehealth portals have specific software you need download to enable data gathering and communication. The Teladoc app, for example, has an easy interface that walks you through everything on their website or via your smartphone.

STEP 5

Provide the necessary information

Again, most portals and apps will walk you through information collection, but make sure you have everything handy. Usually it’s personal information such as height and weight, insurance information, and anything related to your reason for the visit.

STEP 6

Request an appointment

The app or website should offer this option, but you can usually make an appointment via phone if you prefer. Sometime, the provider will ask you to prepare for your appointment by uploading photos of your condition (if applicable) or providing detailed written notes.

STEP 7

Attend your appointment

This may include waiting in a virtual waiting room before your appointment begins. Depending on your equipment and the reason for your visit, the appointment may take place through videoconference or just by telephone.

STEP 8

Review your information

Following the visit, your doctor’s notes, tests ordered, test results, prescriptions, and any other information should be available for access through your medical provider’s online portal or app.

Who Offers Telehealth Services?

There are telehealth options available for just about everyone, including those on Medicare or those with no insurance. Here’s a look at who has telehealth services and systems that you can explore.

Your health insurance company

Health insurance companies often have telehealth systems in place that will allow insureds to access covered medical services from a telehealth medical professional. Cigna Telehealth Connection is one example.

Your PCP

Many hospitals and doctor’s offices will have an online portal that allows patients to send a message to their doctor, review test results, request prescription refills, and make appointments. Some primary care providers will have a full set of telehealth service offerings.

Medicare

Medicare is a federal health insurance program for older Americans. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Medicare now pays for telehealth visits in various settings in addition to the patient’s home, such as nursing homes and outpatient clinics.

The Uninsured

Despite the Affordable Care Act, there are still many people who do not have health insurance. Some telehealth companies offer special rates to uninsured patients that are more affordable than if they were to go in for a regular, in-person visit. One such offering is HeyDoctor from GoodRx.

Your Employer

Health insurance coverage is a staple employee benefit for many. In an attempt to make access to medical care more convenient and cheaper, employers are using telehealth companies to provide these virtual medical services. One such company used by employers is Amwell.

You should also vet the telehealth provider to make sure they can provide what you need. “I think patients should look for a platform that fits their specific needs,” says Dr. Cohen. “Many platforms are simply a fancy FaceTime session, while some are specifically for patients to connect to their pediatrician.”

Dr. Cohen suggests looking for platforms that allow a doctor to review a patient’s medical record, write notes in the system, send pictures and video in real time, and print or save a PDF of the encounter information directly on their computer or other device.

Provider 411: Today’s Popular Telehealth Services

These are some of the best-known telehealth providers. Keep in mind there may be geographic or regulatory restrictions, as well as eligibility requirements.

How does it work?

Future patients can enroll in Amwell, choose a doctor, then set up an appointment that takes place using streaming video.

Who is it good for?

Anyone, with or without insurance, especially those who might have mental health needs.

What services does it offer?

Routine doctor’s visits, mental health visits, and getting prescriptions filled.

What is required?

Signing up and creating an Amwell online account. This will require basic personal information.

What are the prices?

Prices range from $69 to $199, depending on the professional seen and the reason for the visit.

Who can you see?

Board certified medical doctors, licensed therapists, and licensed psychiatrists.

How fast can you be seen?

The same day the request is made.

How does it work?

Cigna is a leading health insurance provider in the United States that allows insureds the ability to see a doctor or nurse anytime.

Who is it good for?

Anyone who has Cigna health insurance.

What services does it offer?

The ability to talk to a board certified doctor by phone or video for minor health issues, such as colds, rashes, urinary tract infections, cold sores, and allergies.

What is required?

Signing up with myCigna, then signing up for the Cigna Telehealth Connection.

What are the prices?

The same cost (or less) as seeing a covered primary care provider in-person.

Who can you see?

Board-certified doctor, licensed clinician, or nurse.

How fast can you be seen?

The same day the request is made.

How does it work?

CVS is well-known as a drug store, but they are also a leading provider of primary care medical services through the MinuteClinic.

Who is it good for?

Anyone without health insurance that’s over the age of two.

What services does it offer?

Basic primary care service, such as minor injuries, upset stomach, obtaining prescriptions, and various skin conditions.

What is required?

Creating a CVS.com account and requesting a video visit from the MinuteClinic.

What are the prices?

$59 per visit.

Who can you see?

Certified nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

How fast can you be seen?

Usually the same day, but within 48 hours (for scheduled visits).

How does it work?

Doctor on Demand provides a wide range of telehealth services. During the sign-up process, individuals can provide their insurance information.

Who is it good for?

Those looking for a comprehensive set of services that goes beyond urgent care.

What services does it offer?

Urgent care, mental health, preventative care, and management of chronic conditions.

What is required?

Patients can sign up in the same time it takes to create a free online email account.

What are the prices?

$75 for a 15 minute consultation with a doctor. Consultations with psychologists and psychiatrists can range between $129 and $299, depending on length of the visit.

Who can you see?

Board-certified doctors based in the United States, as well as licensed psychologists and psychiatrists.

How fast can you be seen?

As soon as you sign up.

How does it work?

Patients can make a telehealth appointment directly with the platform to discuss a medical issue with a doctor.

Who is it good for?

Anyone may use this service, but it is ideal for those without health insurance.

What services does it offer?

Virtual doctor visits, ordering of prescription drugs, and lab work requests.

What is required?

Signing up and providing basic information about name, age, location, email address, and reason for the visit.

What are the prices?

Most visits costs $20, but some may cost up to $50, depending on the nature of the visit.

Who can you see?

Board-certified doctors.

How fast can you be seen?

The same day the request is made.

Telehealth & Tech

Because you won’t be in your primary care provider’s office, you won’t have access to their equipment and tools. This means you may have to provide some of your own, depending on the nature of your visit. At the very least, you’ll need the equipment to make telehealth communication possible. Here’s what you need:

Broadband internet

If you intend to engage in any type of videoconferencing or plan on sending pictures or video in real-time, having access to high-speed internet is absolutely necessary.

Telephone

If broadband internet is not possible, at the very least you’ll need to have access to a telephone. However, this will severely limit the kind of medical services you can receive.

Smartphone or tablet

For most telehealth visits, you’ll want a screen, microphone, and camera so you can communicate with your healthcare provider through visual and audio means. Smartphones and tablets provide these tools in one simple package. They also make it easy to use apps that many telehealth providers offer.

Computer

A computer will only usually be necessary if you do not have access to a tablet or smartphone. If your computer has a microphone and camera, it should be able to do everything your smartphone or tablet can do.

Email and voicemail

While much of the communication with your telehealth provider can take place by phone or through the app they provide, you will still want an email address so you can sign up for the telehealth program and receive messages and notifications. Voicemail may also be helpful so they can leave messages if you prefer to be notified by telephone.

Basic medical equipment

To help with monitoring and taking vitals, some patients may find it useful to purchase basic medical tools, such as an oxygen stat monitor, blood glucose meter, blood pressure cuff, and scale.

Telehealth Do’s and Don’ts

These tips from healthcare professionals can help you understand what you should do – and not do – to make telehealth a rewarding experience.

do-s-sign

Do’s

DO test your equipment

“It is always best if the patient has tested their telehealth platform and is in a relatively quiet location with good Wi-Fi and lighting,” Dr. Cohen says.

DO be fully engaged

“In the office, there are always distractions or devices between patients and the provider,” Ms. Stetler points out. “With telemedicine, doctors and patients have a face-to-face conversation that supports open dialogue.”

DO come prepared

“Patients should always come to their visit prepared,” Ms. Stetler says. “Patients need to come to their visit with an account of progress and symptoms, whether that is an acute visit or follow-up appointment.”

DO understand when telehealth is not enough

“It is important for patients to know that there are times that an in-person visit is more appropriate for the assessment of the patient,” Dr. Cohen says. “I have personally found that if I tell a patient that their complaint is better evaluated in-person they have no issues with it and appreciate that we tried via telemedicine first.”

dont-s-sign

Don’ts

DON’T be nervous

“There are some people that still become somewhat anxious and, in some cases, intimidated by their healthcare providers,” Dr. Stetler explains. “Remember, they are here to legitimately help you live your best life.”

DON’T expect miracles

“There is still a certain population that thinks their healthcare provider can look at them and immediately know what is wrong,” Ms. Stetler says. Know that sometimes, a provider must see you in the office in order to make the correct diagnosis.

Telehealth Resources

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
    The AAP’s website provides extensive information concerning the use and integration of telemedicine as a part of a pediatric practice.
  2. American College of Physicians (ACP)
    This professional organization offers access to health information technology resources, including telehealth.
  3. American Medical Association (AMA)
    The AMA is one of the leading professional organizations for medical doctors. There is a section dedicated to applying telemedicine to a medical practice, especially within the COVID-19 context.
  4. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
    Also known as CMS.gov, this website offers comprehensive information about all things Medicare and Medicaid, including various articles discussing telemedicine issues and news.
  5. HealthCare.gov
    This is the federal health insurance exchange website, where individuals can purchase health insurance policies and learn more about how health insurance benefits available.
  6. HealthIT.gov
    This is the official website of The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. It discusses various healthcare topics in the information technology realm.
  7. HRSA – Telehealth Programs
    This government webpage offers a variety of resources explaining telehealth options, especially within the context of providing medical care to rural or remote parts of the country.
  8. KidsHealth
    Hosted by Nemours, KidsHealth is presents health-related information in an easy to understand format for children and their parents. Various topics are explained, including what telehealth is and how it works.
  9. Mayo Clinic
    This website offers expert information for healthcare topics, including consumer health options, like telehealth.
  10. Medicaid.gov
    An official government website that explains all things relating to Medicaid. It also has resources explaining telemedicine options.