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Everything to Know About Telemedicine During the Coronavirus Pandemic

March 23, 2020

Telemedicine is having a serious moment amid the coronavirus pandemic. At a time when a lot of people are ill but simultaneously unable and not recommended to go to a doctor’s physical office, having access to a physician from the safety of your own home and being able to talk to a doctor online while social distancing is a priceless resource. If you’ve never worked with telehealth or telemedicine before, here’s everything you need to know to get well—from behind your screen.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine, also called telehealth, is virtual access to a doctor, nurse practitioner or other medical professional through telephone, video call, messaging or email appointments. There are a few different kinds of telemedicine: Interactive, in which you directly communicate with a healthcare provider; remote patient monitoring, in which doctors can monitor a patient’s health through mobile equipment (think blood sugar levels); and store and forward, in which a provider can share your healthcare information with other medical professionals with your consent.

What are the benefits of telemedicine?

Dr. Samant Virk, physician and CEO and founder of MediSprout, explains that telemedicine and telehealth are crucial for patients in underserved areas. “Telemedicine also extends the reach of quality care to access to patients in rural locations and makes it easier for a limited number of doctors to diagnose and treat a large number of patients in diverse, far-reaching geographic locations with minimal travel,” he said.

Telemedicine also frees doctors up to spend more time with patients who need it most. “Doctors spend just 27% of their time treating patients—the rest is spent on administrative tasks,” Dr. Virk said. Telemedicine is especially helpful for low-level medical issues. “Level 1-3 visits take up precious office hours, resulting in longer wait times for patients with more demanding needs,” he added. “By using telemedicine for straightforward, low-complexity visits like maintenance check-ins and prescription refills, doctors can reserve in-person time for level 4 and level 5 visits.”

Telehealth services also allow you to maintain contact with your healthcare providers between visits and provide fast answers to questions about your condition, treatment, prescriptions and test results.

There’s also a simple bottom line benefit for everyone. Dr. Latisha Rowe, founder of RoweDocs, points out, “Telemedicine is great because it saves time and money.” She’s right: No one has to miss work, call an Uber or risk infecting anyone else.

Related: How to Sew a Face Mask to Overcome the Shortage During Coronavirus Pandemic

Why is telemedicine important during the coronavirus crisis?

Patients are largely being told to stay home, even—and especially—when they feel unwell to avoid spreading the coronavirus in doctor’s offices. This is where telehealth comes in handy.

“We have to protect our most vulnerable populations from the spread of coronavirus, and utilizing telemedicineallows patients to seek help from the safety of home,” Dr. Rowe says.

Dr. Virk concurred, “Amidst the race to contain COVID-19 (coronavirus), telehealth can mitigate the risks of unnecessary exposure through pre-screening, and ensure continuity of care for all patients without sacrificing the speed and quality of care. What’s more, for patients in need of treatment for chronic conditions or well visits, telemedicine provides a solution that won’t expose them to germs that could be lurking in doctors offices and waiting rooms.”

What health conditions can telemedicine treat?

Telemedicine is great for simple conditions that typically don’t involve testing, such as urinary tract infections, sinus infections or colds. They’re also great for conditions that can be diagnosed visually, Dr. Rowe says, like rashes, acne or other skin conditions. If you already have a prescription for a health condition, you can also use telemedicine to get refills as needed, though there are exceptions for certain medications.

What health conditions can’t telemedicine treat?

If you need a prescription for a controlled substance, you likely won’t be able to get it from telemedicine, Dr. Rowe says, noting, “That includes pain management, ADHD medication, sleep aids and hormone therapies.”

Dr. Rowe also points out that if a doctor can’t take your vitals (blood pressure and pulse) or listen to your lungs or heartbeat through telehealth services, while Alexandra Kreps, MD., pointed out that an in-person exam is needed to examine growths and lumps of any kind.

What are the downsides to telemedicine?

Though circumstances change rapidly everyday in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to know that some insurance companies won’t cover telemedicine, and the ones that do may only cover certain platforms—and even then, you can run into the same issues that you do with medical billing in a brick-and-mortar office. “Before insurance companies will pay for telemedicine procedures, they require a level of documentation equal to what they would get with a face-to-face patient visit in order properly reimburse providers for their services. Errors in documentation result in claim denial and resubmission prolongs payment,” Tonya Keen of Medical Transcription Services of America warns.

Keen also advises to make sure that your healthcare information is only store and transferred through secure networks and to check that your telemedicine provider complies with HIPAA regulations to maintain your privacy.

Ron Eaker, MD., also pointed out, “We haven’t worked out all the medical and legal ramifications yet. Obviously there are some conditions that are not appropriate for treatment, and, as always, there will be abuses of the system. Reducing some of the restrictions, as of late, has made the use of various platforms more accessible.”

Can telemedicine replace my real-life doctor?

It shouldn’t, Dr. Kreps warns. “Telemedicine is truly a complementary practice. There is nothing like seeing a patient in person, being able to develop that patient-doctor relationship and diagnosing a range of illnesses can be limited,” she told Parade Online. “Telemedicine cannot truly provide the ability of a proper physical exam, something as a physician we are trained to highly value and can greatly help diagnose and treat certain medical issues.”

What are some telemedicine services?

There are a slew of telemedicine services, but each varies in its own particular way, especially price and availability in certain locations—and not all of them accept insurance. Before using a telehealth service, be sure to check with your insurance provider to see which, if any, they’ll cover, and if they’re available in your city and state.

You can also check with your own physicians, as many offer telehealth services through their practices.