If you hadn’t heard of telehealth before the coronavirus pandemic, you probably know about it now. Medical providers are trying to move as many of their appointments to virtual means as they can. While telehealth options have been around for years, this is the first time it’s been implemented on such a wide scale. Since many people want to know exactly what telehealth is and how it works, we answer all your telehealth FAQs. Ever wonder about security concerns and how providers diagnose symptoms like the coronavirus via video call? We’ve got you covered.

What types of telehealth are available?

There are three main types of telehealth interactions that you might have with your provider. They are:

  1. Live consultations, which are usually held over video conferencing.
  2. Asynchronous messaging, where you send your provider text or pictures and they respond as they are able.
  3. Remote monitoring, when the patient uses at-home devices to measure vitals such as blood glucose and then sends them to a provider for an examination.

A telehealth appointment usually refers to the first option, i.e. scheduling a video call with your provider (white lab coats and nursing scrubs not required), but your telehealth interactions will usually span all three categories.

Is telehealth secure?

Given all the privacy concerns surrounding technology, many people are understandably concerned about the security of their virtual visits. The security will vary depending on the service(s) that your provider uses. If your doctor is part of a larger hospital network, they may contract with a major telehealth provider or use a proprietary system, which should be more secure. Smaller practices may use more general-purpose virtual meeting software, such as Skype, which usually have looser privacy restrictions. Investigate the privacy policies of the services that your provider asks you to use, and you can also ask your provider about implementing security features such as encrypted data transmission.

Is telehealth covered by insurance?

This depends on your insurance, your provider, and the telehealth system they use. In general, telehealth services provided directly by a doctor or a hospital are more likely to be covered, though not always. Even if the virtual visit is covered by insurance, patients may still have a co-pay or another charge. If it’s not covered, patients can choose to pay out of pocket for the entire visit. Common per visit fees range from $50 to $80, while other platforms charge an annual membership fee.  If you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, thanks to some recent changes, Medicare will cover telehealth services and Medicare Advantage plans may waive or reduce cost-sharing.

How can I find a telehealth provider?

If you already have a provider, check with them first to see if they have existing telehealth or upcoming telehealth options due to coronavirus. Depending on what insurance you have, you might also be able to filter your provider search on the insurance portal to only show providers that provide telehealth options. Some telehealth service websites, such as Teladoc Health and MD Live, will let you search for providers on their website. If you find doctors via the latter route, you’ll need to contact their offices to see if they accept your insurance before you make an appointment.

What are some advantages of telehealth?

Telehealth offers several benefits over regular appointments. For one, it protects both patients and providers from the transmission of germs (very important in the age of coronavirus). It also eliminates the need to secure transportation and elder or child care. Plus, it reduces the time spent in waiting rooms and on the road. Telehealth appointments save patients and providers money as well as time. They also give providers more flexibility to set their own schedules and schedule appointments when it’s most convenient for everybody involved.

What are some disadvantages of telehealth?

However, telehealth does have some drawbacks. Obviously, some visits simply need to be completed in person. Patients can’t just grab a stethoscope and listen to their own vitals. There can also be issues of access, as not everyone has a smartphone or laptop and a stable internet connection, which are necessary for video consultations. The inconsistency of insurance coverage for patients and reimbursement for providers can also cause headaches and complicate what would ordinarily be a simple visit.

Can I get a prescription via a telehealth appointment?

Yes, doctors can use telehealth to write or renew prescriptions. If you just need a refill on an existing prescription, you might be able to request it by messaging your doctor and eliminating the need to book and pay for an appointment. If it’s a new prescription, or you’re not sure what medication you need, you’ll probably need to book a quick appointment for a diagnosis. They’ll still have to call in the prescription at a local pharmacy, so you’ll have to venture out to pick it up or arrange to get it delivered.

Can coronavirus be diagnosed via a telehealth appointment?

Because the symptoms can vary so widely from patient to patient, and also overlap somewhat with those of other common infectious diseases (including the flu), the only way to confirm that you definitely have coronavirus is to get a test that involves taking a swab in person. However, you can use a telehealth appointment to discuss your symptoms with your doctors and determine whether you need a test or if you’re just suffering from allergies. In fact, many hospitals have set up a coronavirus hotline specifically for this purpose. Your doctors can also talk you through quarantine best practices and how to keep those around you safe.

If you need to talk to your doctor right now, odds are that you’ll be making your visit virtually via telehealth services. Keep these FAQs in mind to make sure that your visit is covered by insurance and your privacy is secure. Welcome to the future of medicine!

Deborah Swanson
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