The COVID-19-fueled surge has tapered off as patients venture back to doctors’ offices. But medical professionals and health experts predict that when the pandemic is over, telehealth will still play a much larger role than before.
For patients, the advantages of telemedicine are clear: You typically can get an appointment sooner, in the safety of your own home or workplace, saving time and money on gas and parking—in some cases, even avoiding a loss in wages for missing work.
James Wolfrom, a 69-year-old retired postal executive in San Francisco, has had mostly virtual health care appointments since the pandemic started. He particularly appreciates the video visits.
“It’s just like I’m in the room with the doctor, with all of the benefits and none of the disadvantages of having to haul my body over to the facility,” said Wolfrom, who has Type 2 diabetes. “Even after the pandemic, I’m going to prefer doing the video conferencing over having to go there.”
Telemedicine also provides care for people in rural areas who live far from medical facilities.
You can also contact one of those companies directly for a medical consultation if you don’t have insurance, and pay between $75 and $82 for a regular doctor visit.
If you are one of the 13 million Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, you can get telehealth services at little to no cost.
Large medical offices and health systems usually have their own telemedicine platforms. In other cases, your provider may use a publicly available platform such as FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom. Either way, you will need access to a laptop, tablet, or smartphone—though, for a phone conversation, a landline or simple cellphone will suffice.
Smartphones with good cameras can be particularly useful in telemedicine because high-resolution photos can help doctors see certain medical problems more clearly. For example, a photo from a good smartphone camera usually provides enough detail for a dermatologist to determine whether a mole requires further attention, Kvedar said.
Relatively inexpensive apps and at-home tools enable you to measure your own blood pressure, pulse rate, oxygen saturation level, and blood sugar. It’s a good idea to monitor your vitals and have the numbers ready before you start a virtual visit.
Be aware that a remote visit isn't right for every situation. In the case of serious injury, severe chest pain, or a drug overdose, for example, you should call 911 or get to the ER as quickly as possible.
Virtual visits also aren't recommended in other cases for which the doctor needs to lay hands on you.
Wolfrom has had only a few in-person health visits this year, one of them with a podiatrist who checks his feet every 6 to 12 months for diabetes-related neuropathy. “That can only be done when you are in the room and the podiatrist is touching and feeling your feet,” Wolfrom said.
Face-to-face visits are generally better for young children. Kids often require vaccinations, and it’s easier for doctors to monitor their growth and development in person, said Dr. Dan Vostrejs, a pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.
In general, telemedicine is effective in cases that would typically send you to an urgent care clinic, such as minor injuries or flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, and sore throat.
It is also increasingly used for post-surgical follow-ups. Telemedicine can be a godsend for geriatric or disabled patients with reduced mobility.
Providers can monitor patients’ vitals remotely and discuss lab results, diet, medications, and any symptoms in a video chat or a phone conversation. “If you happen to see something that’s awry, you can bring them into your office,” Alperin said, adding it’s “a better form of triage.”
But telemedicine has some serious disadvantages. For one thing, the less formal setting can allow some routine medical practices to slip through the cracks.
Elsa Pearson, a resident of Dedham, Massachusetts, had a medical appointment scheduled in March, which was switched to a telephone call because of the pandemic-induced lockdown.
“It was honestly the most efficient appointment I’ve had in my life,” said Pearson, 30. But, “I must admit, without the push of having the labs right there when you leave the appointment, I’ve yet to get them done.”
Perhaps the biggest pitfall in telehealth is the loss of a more intimate and valuable doctor–patient relationship.