Telehealth Options During COVID-19

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If you're feeling unwell but don't want to sit in your busy doctor's office, telehealth offers another way to be diagnosed.

If you're feeling unwell but don't want to sit in your busy doctor's office, telehealth offers another way to be diagnosed. 

It's a tangled mess. You need to see a doctor because you think you may have COVID-19 (or some other illness), but don't feel well enough to drive and/or don't want to sit in a waiting room full of sick people. And if you live in a region of the country currently overrun with the very sick, you may have reservations about stretching the already-thin resources of medical personnel.

That's where telehealth comes in. The Health Resources Service Administration describes telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support healthcare from a distance. Essentially, what that means is that healthcare services can work remotely -- and you can speak with a physician without having to make a trip to the doctor's office. The communication methods used by telehealth providers are already being used by the millions of Americans currently working from home

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How telehealth works

There was a time when a family doctor would drop by the home of a sick patient, just to save them a trip out. And doctors attempted to diagnose patients via telephone as early as the 1950s. If you've ever been pregnant and made a call into your obstetrician's office because you thought you were in labor, you've already had experience with telehealth.

The practice of telehealth consists of two key components:

  • Healthcare is provided when the patient and provider are in different locations
  • Some type of technology is used to facilitate the interaction

While today's telehealth appointments commonly take place via video streaming -- through programs like FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype -- other practices also fall under the telehealth umbrella. They include:

  • Virtual doctors. These are licensed physicians who will diagnose and treat you via phone call, text, or even email. Some accept health insurance, offer discounts to employees of particular companies, or charge a low one-time fee for their services. 
  • Remote patient monitoring (RPM). This is when healthcare providers monitor their patients remotely, conducting routine checks on things like blood pressure, glucose levels, or weight. They enter the information collected on the patient's chart and the entire healthcare team can see any trends or changes that merit concern. RPM is frequently used to monitor patients with chronic diseases, such as congestive heart failure or Type II diabetes.
  • Store-and-forward. This type of telehealth stores patient information -- like diagnostic tests, videos, and photographic images -- in a database so that it can be sent to another medical provider (often a specialist). Although the patient does not interact with the specialist in real time, it allows that doctor to form a medical opinion based on the information at hand.

In short, telehealth makes it possible for a healthcare professional to study your condition without you being present in the room. If you are in a high-risk group, that may be especially appealing right now.

How it helps

One of the things we're seeing as COVID-19 spreads is how patchy the situation is. One part of the country may be inundated with cases while another has very few. Telehealth allows physicians in areas not currently swamped with cases to consult patients in areas where doctors are being run ragged. It's called "geographic load balancing" and it helps balance the workload among available healthcare professionals.

Another way telehealth can help is that it keeps you out of a medical office. In this time of social distancing, you can be diagnosed from your own home without being exposed to other illnesses or exposing others to whatever you may have.

How to find a telehealth doctor

If you have a family physician, start with your current doctor's office. It's possible that your doc puts aside time each day for telehealth appointments or there is a nurse practitioner on duty to cover them. If your family doctor does not offer telehealth appointments, other alternatives are available:  

  • K-Health offers text conversations with real doctors for a one-time fee of $19 or unlimited chats for $49 per year. If you're without insurance, a service like this can help prevent charges to your credit card. Here's how it works: You fill out a short questionnaire and K-Health shows you how doctors diagnosed and treated people with similar symptoms. You'll get an idea of what you should watch out for and the medications used to treat those with your possible diagnosis. Next, you can text with a physician who can make a more definitive diagnosis, order lab tests (if needed), and prescribe medication.
  • HeyDoctor by GoodRX charges $20 for an online medical visit with a board-certified doctor and will send any prescriptions needed to your pharmacy with discounts of up to 80%.
  • LiveHealth Online offers video appointments for $59, but also accepts a variety of insurance plans. Doctors are available 24 hours a day and if you want to actually speak to one, LiveHealth Online may be a good option for you. It's as easy as linking up through your smartphone or computer. 

It is important to note that none of these telehealth practices can test you for the COVID-19 virus, but they can refer you for testing if needed. 

Many people are facing difficult decisions during the COVID-19 outbreak, but there are resources available to help you and your family stay physically and financially healthy.

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