Telemedicine and COVID-19
The CDC is recommending the use of telemedicine to reduce the risk of disease transmission in healthcare facilities. It’s easy to understand why, telemedicine seems like it was tailor-made for this moment in time. Health care professionals can diagnose and treat patients by phone or video chat, helping to flatten the curve of infections while making it easy for people -especially those at greatest risk if infected with COVID-19, to get the help they need.
Virtual visits can be used to deliver non-emergency medical care, as well as support those who are infected with COVID-19 and are experiencing mild symptoms. Doctors can also screen people through virtual consultations to establish whether a person is in a low-, medium-, or high-risk group and determine whether they need hands-on care or can better recover at home.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) telemedicine and virtual care have quickly become important tools in caring for patients while keeping healthcare providers safe as the COVID-19 pandemic quickly evolves. Many practices have converted fully to video visits for the duration of the pandemic.
“As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai said in a March 30 press release .
What happens during a telemedicine consultation?
The software that you use – on a website, your phone or other device - to access telemedicine services is designed to make the whole process super easy. If it’s your first time, you’ll need to fill in a health record first, the same as you do when you see any new doctor - it really is just a matter of clicking a couple of buttons, providing some very basic info about your symptoms, and requesting an appointment.
You can opt for a video consultation, which works the same way as Skype, FaceTime or other video chat programs. If you’ve never done a video chat, it’s super simple – assuming your phone, computer or tablet can do video (most can) you simply click to start the chat and start talking to the doctor. You can see the doctor, and he or she can see you so it’s a good option if you want to show the doctor a rash, swelling or whatever you happen to be calling about.
If you’d prefer not to be face-to-face with the doctor, no problem. You can ask for a telephone consultation – and if you like, you can snap a couple of photos of any visible symptoms you might want to show the doctor and upload them before you call.
During the consultation, you talk to the doctor the same way as you’d talk to your own doctor if you were in his or her office. Tell them about your symptoms, answer their questions, ask about anything you don’t understand. The doctor will then discuss treatment options with you, and if needed can call in a prescription for some types of medications, to the pharmacy of your choice. And you’ll get a written summary at the end of the consultation, detailing your diagnosis and treatment plan, so don’t worry about taking notes or having to remember everything!
How can I access telemedicine?
If you have health insurance, find out if your plan covers telemedicine and if so, what providers are in your network. During the pandemic, Medicare is reimbursing many types of health care providers for telemedicine, so check this guide (or your Advantage plan’s documentation) to see what services are eligible . If your insurance doesn’t cover telemedicine services, or you don’t have insurance, you can search online for telemedicine providers who provide virtual visits to the public for a fixed fee – about $50-$75 per visit.
You can also join a telemedicine plan, like the ones offered by DentalPlans.com, to access free, unlimited telemedicine services and other benefits. These plans are not insurance, they are membership plans that reduce the cost of essential health services.
Some telemedicine providers deliver services through their own apps or website, others use secure communications programs like Skype for Business / Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex Meetings / Webex Teams, Amazon Chime or GoToMeeting. And in most cases, if you prefer a regular phone call, providers will accommodate you.
No matter how you choose to access telemedicine services, check to see if the provider confirms their compliance with HIPAA and HITECH, to help ensure that your privacy is protected during a virtual consultation. All healthcare providers – virtual or not - are expected to comply with the guidance provided by HIPAA and HITECH. You can typically find this information in the provider’s FAQs (look for privacy) or displayed on the provider’s website.
The Future of Telemedicine
While no one knows when social distancing will end, when the pandemic will burn itself out or when a vaccine will become available, one thing is for sure: this will pass. But the use of telemedicine is likely to continue growing even after the pandemic fades, as more people and healthcare professionals experience the advantages and conveniences of virtual healthcare.
CDC COVID-19 Guidance
Harvard Health Publishing Coronavirus Resource Center
White House Coronavirus Task Force