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Everything You Need to Know About Telemedicine

Telemedicine and telehealth are terms that are relatively new in the popular vocabulary. While they have been discussed in some expert circles for many years, they have only started to become part of everyday people’s lives in the past several years. What was once a limited effort by non-profits like Doctors Without Borders to bring professional health services to underserved populations in developing countries has become a shift in the paradigm of delivering health care services the world over. Now, residents in the US, much of the EU, and other developed countries can access convenient telemedicine services from nationally certified providers that save time and money over conventional healthcare options.

Yet, before considering telemedicine, many people naturally have questions about this new field and what it means for them. What conditions can they have treated via telemedicine? How exactly does telemedicine work? Are prescriptions available? Why choose telemedicine over a traditional doctor visit? How can you find a quality telemedicine provider? These are all important questions worth discussing in greater detail. This guide can effectively be considered a primer to everything you need to know about telemedicine, including answering those critical questions and giving patients the information they need to make educated choices to optimize their own health and healthcare experiences.

What is Telemedicine?

Formally, Merriam-Webster defines telemedicine as “the practice of medicine when the doctor and patient are widely separated using two-way voice and visual communication (as by satellite or computer)”. In practical terms, telemedicine is really any service that provides remote interaction between a doctor or practitioner and a patient. This can take the form of voice chats or phone call appointments, text-based chat appointments or interactions, or full two-way video calling, usually through proprietary apps or services. 

Most modern telemedicine services for the general public use some or all of these ways to talk and share information. In some cases, they may allow for the uploading of patient data, scans, or reports. Other features may include the ability to have prescriptions written and filled, doctor’s notes provided for employers or related purposes, and referrals provided for lab testing or specialist visits. 

Typically, patients will only need to sign up for a telemedicine service and use online tools to schedule an appointment. This will require an Internet connection (or phone connection) and appropriate devices (e.g., telephone, smartphone, tablet, laptop, or computer), and may require the download of certain software through the provider’s portal. In general, these services are designed to be quick and easy to use, with a minimum of technical knowledge. The point of providing multiple avenues for service also goes to accessibility, with those who may be uncomfortable with a video chat or not as computer-literate able to access similar services over the phone.

What Conditions or Services Can a Telemedicine Appointment Provide?

The range of services available at a given telemedicine provider will vary. In some jurisdictions, there are limitations on what services can be provided remotely. In others, practical considerations are the primary limiting factor. In general, quality telemedicine providers will detail what conditions they treat or services they offer prior to scheduling any appointment—typically on their website. It’s important to note that for the sake of this telemedicine guide, we’re primarily looking at US-based telemedicine providers servicing the US market. Telemedicine services may be very different in other countries in terms of what services are available, how they treat certain conditions, and what rules or restrictions they have to follow.

In most cases, the limitations on services available via telemedicine are a function of the medium itself.  Doctors can’t directly test a patient from far away, and visual observations through video chat may not be enough or be limited. So, it is hard to directly diagnose new conditions, internal disorders, or the kinds of illnesses or problems that would usually require palpation, measurement, or other forms of hands-on diagnostic testing. In some states or regions, these limits may be set by medical ethics codes or rules, or they may be self-imposed by the medical staff of a given telemedicine service based on the limits of a remote appointment.

Therefore, most telemedicine providers are not meant as a replacement for emergency services, conventional doctor or clinic visits, or similar when an illness or sickness of unknown origin is suspected.  Instead, they are meant to augment these traditional services: for health care tasks such as renewing prescriptions for managed, ongoing conditions; performing diagnoses and recommending treatment for conditions where no in-office or hands-on diagnosis would be required; providing basic diagnosis and treatment advice for conditions that can be diagnosed based on sight, symptoms, or history alone; monitoring and consulting on patient vitals and management efforts; aiding patients with lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation, sexual health issues, addiction, and similar; providing acute care for known or recurring problems such as urinary tract infections, athlete’s foot, acne, and similar; and other services.

How Does Telemedicine Work?

Every telemedicine service will work somewhat differently, with its own processes, instructions, and so on.  However, generally speaking, most patients who seek telemedicine care can expect an experience that is fairly similar to the following:

  1. New patients typically have to make an account on their chosen telemedicine website or app.  This is usually similar to signing up with any website or service and simply requires an email address, personal information, and so on.
  2. Some sites allow you to upload documents, medical records, and other personal health history, or answer some basic history questionnaires in advance.  Others confine this aspect of the service to during the appointments themselves.
  3. Usually, most telemedicine services offer scheduled appointments, on-demand appointments, or both.  In some cases, only scheduled appointments are available – though typically, these can be as little as 1 day ahead.  In other cases, on-demand appointments put patients into a queue, with an appointment anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours later.  The hours of service availability and features offered by a given telemedicine provider should be reviewed carefully to ensure that your chosen telemedicine provider’s hours and offerings align with your needs.
  4. Appointments can be made for voice/call-based service, email/text/live chat-based service, and/or video conference service.  Not every telemedicine operation offers all of these options, and there may be additional restrictions based on the conditions or services a patient is seeking, as well as the availability of provider staff through each of these different communication methods.
  5. The exact procedure required to initiate the appointment will vary depending on the method and the specifics of the telemedicine provider.  In many cases, an online portal will open and provide access to a phone number and PIN, a link for a video conference, or similar.  In other cases, at least the first time you visit a telemedicine provider, proprietary software may be required to be downloaded and installed.  This is most common for video chat services and is usually no more complex than clicking a few buttons and putting in your telemedicine account username and password.
  6. Typically, appointment length will either be fixed or variable based on the company and services sought by the patient.  Many may have a flat rate for a certain length of appointment, with additional charges if the patient wishes the appointment to go longer.  Others may charge on a per-minute basis, quarter or half-hourly basis, or similar.  The top quality telemedicine providers generally charge a flat fee regardless of how long the appointment takes and then may have additional fees associated with writing or filling a prescription, providing a doctor’s note for employers, and related services.
  7. Depending on the outcome of your appointment, there may be certain follow-up actions through the telemedicine provider, such as issuing a prescription to their associated pharmacy and having a medication shipped to your home.  The process for managing these follow-up actions will be different for each telemedicine provider.
  8. After an appointment and/or any follow-up actions have been completed, patients are typically billed directly via the payment method they have provided/on file with the telemedicine service. 
  9. Additional future appointments can be obtained on a scheduled or as-needed basis, depending on the specific offerings and requirements of a given telemedicine provider.

What are the Benefits of Telemedicine vs. Traditional Doctor Visits?

One of the main reasons why telemedicine is gaining in popularity is that it provides numerous benefits and advantages over traditional doctor visits.  This is not to say that it is a replacement for conventional care – it is not.  But most people who have had to visit a doctor, wait for hours, and pay a hefty price just to get a renewal on a prescription or a new prescription for an existing condition can attest that it’s a wasteful and negative experience.  Telemedicine providers fill a niche in the market to make those experiences much quicker, easier, and more affordable. 

To compare telemedicine with traditional healthcare is a bit like comparing apples and oranges because they are significantly different in their capabilities and purposes. However, looking at the pros and cons of telemedicine can help to illustrate how they do compare, with the benefits and limitations of telemedicine becoming more clear in that way.

Pros

  • Patients can usually speak with a doctor much sooner, with much less lead time, than at a conventional doctor’s office.
  • Can have a consultation from the comfort and convenience of your home or office.
  • Services are generally much lower cost than at traditional doctor’s offices.
  • Much easier and faster to get a prescription renewed or issued.
  • Wide range of appointment/communication options.
  • Take direct charge of managing your health care services.
  • No travel to a doctor’s office, or sitting around with many other potentially sick people.
  • More face time with a doctor or health care professional than in many traditional office settings.

Cons

  • Not all conditions can be diagnosed or treated remotely, meaning more limited services are available than a traditional doctor’s office visit.
  • May require a little bit of setup and technical knowledge to download and install video conferencing software and similar.
  • Can be technical/connection problems that interfere with appointments or service availability for some patients.
  • Generally, don’t accept or bill insurance, so while the costs are lower than a doctor’s office visit, it may result in a higher out-of-pocket expense when compared directly.

Choosing a Telemedicine Provider

If you are considering choosing a telemedicine provider and giving it a try yourself, then it’s important to do your research. You want to ensure that you choose a quality provider and avoid getting involved with any scam websites or less-than-reputable practitioners. The best way to do that is to ensure that you consider the following factors before engaging with a telemedicine service:

  • Practitioners should be board-certified and licensed.  Their credentials and other information should be readily accessible through the telemedicine provider’s website (either for anyone to review, or accessible once patients are signed-up and linked with a specific doctor for an appointment).
  • The service should be reputable, with few negative reviews online.  Newer services may not have a ton of reviews, to begin with, but those that do exist should be generally positive.  Likewise, there should be a minimum of BBB complaints, FTC complaints, or other actions against a telemedicine company.
  • Patients should ensure that the provider takes their safety, security, and privacy seriously.  Providers should use encryption technology to keep data secure and use video conferencing and communication platforms that are HIPAA-compliant.
  • Hours of operation or availability, as well as general appointment scheduling information, should be considered.  While not every service offers 24/7 availability, it is useful to know if you can have an on-demand appointment in a few hours or if you have to wait a day or more for a consultation.  Likewise, ensuring availability during your typical available hours (e.g., nights/evenings, weekends, etc.) is something to consider before signing up for a particular telemedicine service.
  • Prices for services should be reasonable, and consistent with what other providers in the same market offer.  Absurdly low prices or excessively high prices are usually red flags.
  • It’s helpful if the telemedicine provider has an affiliated pharmacy, where they can refer your prescriptions, have them filled, and then have them shipped to you, without significant additional work on your part.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I get a prescription with a telemedicine appointment?

Most telemedicine providers are capable of issuing a prescription as part of an appointment.  These prescriptions are usually limited, however, to the services and conditions that a provider treats.  Some providers may have affiliated pharmacies, to which they can refer the prescription and have it filled and sent to your home directly.  Others may issue electronic/phone/paper-based prescriptions to your local pharmacy of choice.

Why can’t I get X/Y/Z treated via telemedicine?

Telemedicine services are typically limited to diagnosing and treating conditions that are well-managed or readily apparent via remote appointments. Those conditions that would require in-person diagnoses, testing, or laboratory testing to confirm are generally outside the scope of services offered by telemedicine providers.

Is telemedicine safe?

Telemedicine is entirely safe and secure, so long as you choose a quality telemedicine provider.  Any reputable provider should use HIPAA-compliant conferencing software and data management, as well as encrypt transactions and patient records’ communication with industry-standard encryption protocols. 

For Affordable, Fast, Professional Telemedicine Service, Choose Telegra MD!

Patients ready to take the first step with telemedicine should consider signing up at Telegra MD. When you need a telemedicine consultation now, not days from now, Telegra MD is your ideal choice. With a low, flat rate for consultations, a wide range of conditions and treatments, and multiple methods of communication available, Telegra MD is designed to cater to your unique needs and preferences. 

The team of professionals behind Telegra MD is fully licensed and board-certified and can be in touch with you in as little as 10 to 15 minutes. There’s no charge to sign up for an account, and no obligation.  Whether you need a prescription renewal, consultation on a new problem, or just want to take better control over your existing health issues, Telegra MD is here to help!

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