Telehealth: A New Way of Getting Healthcare

Telehealth, also called telemedicine, is becoming more popular as a way of getting healthcare. Telehealth delivers care and information through electronic devices, like telephones, tablets and computers. That means you may not have to travel to an office, clinic or hospital.

How Telehealth Works

Telehealth can be a phone call in which you tell your symptoms to a doctor and get advice. Or, it can be a videoconference over your smartphone, computer or tablet. In a videoconference, the healthcare provider can examine you visually while the two of you are talking. If medicine is needed, the provider can send a prescription electronically to your local drugstore. Email and text messages also can be used for telehealth.

Your primary care physician (PCP) or other healthcare provider may use telehealth to consult with a specialist. For instance, if you have a rash, your provider may take a digital photo of it and then email or text the photo to a dermatologist. The dermatologist can then study the photo and send a report back to your provider. Such a procedure is called “store-and-forward.”

You may get telehealth at home, or you might get it in an outside healthcare setting, such as a hospital or physician’s office. There you can be linked to a distant specialist. Telehealth services are also available at some retail clinics, which can be found in places like drugstores and shopping centers

Uses for Telehealth

Telehealth may be a way to care for a number of conditions, including:

  • Minor but pressing health problems, like sore throats, allergies and skin rashes.
  • Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Chronic conditions, for instance a heart or lung illness. Your vital signs and other facts about your physical state can be checked regularly by telehealth.
  • Follow-up after a hospital discharge.
  • After-hours urgent conditions, like a child’s fever in the middle of the night. Many telehealth services are offered 24/7.

Advantages of Telehealth

Telehealth can be very helpful if you live in a rural area and are far from healthcare providers, or if you have little access to certain specialties. But telehealth is growing in cities and suburbs as well because of its two big advantages: convenience and price. With telehealth, there’s often no need to travel or wait in a provider’s office. Prices for telehealth can be lower than for other types of healthcare services, too. Some insurers require no copay for a telehealth visit. Or, the copay may be lower than, for example, a visit to an urgent care center. Even if you’re paying out of pocket for your healthcare, you may find telehealth cheaper than in-person care.

Telehealth isn’t right for every health problem. If you have a broken leg, for example, you need it set in person. If you’re not sure, a telehealth provider can let you know whether you need in-person care.

Insurance Coverage for Telehealth

Many (but not all) states require insurers to cover telehealth the same way they do in-person services. But not all health insurance companies cover telehealth services. Those that do may not cover all services. Before you schedule a telehealth visit, find out from your insurer whether:

  • Your plan covers telehealth services;
  • The type of telehealth services you want are covered;
  • There are restrictions on getting telehealth services (such as having an established provider-patient relationship); and
  • You’re limited to a certain number of telehealth visits per year.

Medicare covers telehealth, but with restrictions. Medicaid provides coverage for telehealth in all 50 states, but the amount of coverage varies from state to state.

How to Find a Telehealth Provider

If you’re interested in using telehealth, ask your insurer whether they provide access to a telehealth service as part of your plan. You can also ask your healthcare provider or hospital whether they offer it. If they don’t, there are a number of private companies that sell basic telehealth services. The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) accredits telehealth services that offer online patient consultations. You can find their list of accredited services here.