While telehealth services have been around for more than four decades, in the past few years the explosion of healthcare technology has really caused a boom in patient-centered telemedicine solutions. As defined by the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), telemedicine is “the remote delivery of health care services and clinical information using telecommunications technology. This includes a wide array of clinical services using internet, wireless, satellite and telephone media.”
Telemedicine covers a wide variety of services. Examples include a live video chat with a physician, sending a digital x-ray to a specialist for evaluation, remotely monitoring a patient’s blood pressure with a medical device and instant messaging with a nurse over a secure mobile app. (Note that while some companies and organizations have their own separate definitions of the words, the ATA uses the words “telehealth” and “telemedicine” interchangeably.)
According to the ATA, there are more than 200 telemedicine networks with 3,500 service sites in the U.S., and over half of all U.S. hospitals now use some form of telemedicine. Both Medicare and Medicaid cover at least some types of telemedicine, and 34 states and the District of Columbia require that private insurers cover telehealth the same as they cover in-person services—a number that will surely expand in the near future. While it’s not yet offered by all providers, or covered by all insurers, telemedicine is slowly but surely shaping the way patients receive care, and it will eventually transform the healthcare landscape for good.
Below, we outline 12 benefits that patients can experience by using telehealth services.
Find doctors who accept your insurance
You can be surrounded by providers but if they don’t take your insurance, that isn’t much help. Telehealth services let you easily find doctors in your area who accept your insurance, whether you need an in-person visit or a virtual appointment. This cuts down on your out-of-pocket healthcare costs and ensures that you’re getting your money’s worth for your insurance. After all, if you’re already paying for the insurance, you might as well stay in-network whenever you can.
Access more specialists
If you reside in a small town or rural area, you might not live within a convenient distance of every type of provider you might need. Or if you have a rare condition, there might only be a few experts who are knowledgeable about it in the whole country, period. Telemedicine can expand the number of specialists available to you, since secure phone calls, video chats and other virtual visit methods allow you to consult with providers who accept your insurance but are located too far away for in-person visits. Through telemedicine appointments, you can still consult with these far-away doctors while staying within your network—doctors whom you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get an appointment with.
Browse provider ratings
Most people obsessively research a restaurant on Yelp or TripAdvisor before making a reservation or read numerous product reviews on Amazon before they click “buy.” So why wouldn’t you do the same for a doctor who’s going to help you take care of your health, possibly for years? Outside of telehealth, you pretty much have to Google “general practitioner near me” and cross your fingers that you’ll be able to find a doctor with any reviews, much less one with a 5-star rating. And even then, you’ll have no idea if those reviews were written by real patients or not. But telemedicine platforms collect honest reviews from verified patients and compile them all in one convenient place, allowing you to research doctors beforehand and choose one with great patient satisfaction ratings.
Schedule an appointment quickly
Scheduling a doctor appointment the old-fashioned way, especially if you’re a new patient, can be frustrating and time-consuming. You have to locate a provider, call them up, wait on hold, double check that they accept your insurance and then actually book the appointment. Even then, there might not be a slot available for weeks or even months, or the opening may be at an inconvenient time that requires you to take off work or otherwise rearrange your schedule. But telemedicine services make it easy to browse your providers’ schedule and choose a time that’s convenient for you. Instead of wasting time on hold, you can book an appointment in just a few taps and then continue on with your life.
Consult with your doctor from home
Sometimes, you just can’t go to the doctor in person, either because you don’t have time, you’re too sick to go the doctor’s office or you’re traveling somewhere else entirely. Thankfully, telehealth services allow you to consult with your doctor from home, work, a hotel room, the road or wherever you may be with an internet connection. Whether you’re trying to squeeze in an appointment between work meetings or get an antibiotic for the strep throat you picked up on your trip, telemedicine can help you start feeling better with a minimum of inconvenience.
Cut down on lost time and other costs
Virtual telemedicine appointments can either reduce the time you need to take off work or eliminate the need to take PTO completely due to its convenient and efficient scheduling. If you make a telemedicine appointment, you won’t need to arrange alternative care for children or elders, which can be impractical and expensive–especially if the appointment is last minute. Finally, telemedicine eliminates both the time and money you would spend on transportation, since you can talk with your doctor without ever leaving your couch.
Chat with your doctor directly
Maybe you don’t need a full-on appointment with your doctor, but you do want to touch base with her quickly—say, you have a follow-up question about a new prescription you’ve recently started taking. You can call up your doctor’s office and try to get someone (who might or might not be your doctor) on the line. Or, with telehealth services, you can chat with your doctor directly using a secure in-app chat feature. The chat feature allows you to reach out to your provider at a time that’s convenient for you. You won’t have to wait around on hold, hoping to get someone on the phone in between appointments. You can simply send the instant message and go about your day until your doctor responds to you directly and continue the conversation via the chat feature if necessary.
Compare out-of-pocket prices
Sometimes, you’ll find yourself with a really bad case of the flu over the weekend, and you won’t be able to wait for your regular doctor’s hours on Monday. In this type of situation, you’ll need to pay a visit to an urgent care center. But costs can vary widely from center to center, even in the same town. One facility could cost double the price of another five miles away. When pricing data is available, consumers can save a lot of money on various healthcare procedures by shopping around beforehand, and telemedicine apps are promoting price transparency and making it easy to compare out-of-pocket costs at the various facilities nearby. No one ever wants to go the doctor but doing a little research beforehand can help lessen the impact the visit will have on your wallet.
See emergency room wait times
No one wants to go to the doctor, and people really want to avoid a trip to the emergency room. But sometimes, it can’t be helped. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 136.9 million people visited the emergency room in 2015—and only 35.4% of those people were seen by a doctor in 15 minutes or less. In other words, there’s a 2 out of 3 chance that you’ll have to wait at least 15 minutes (and probably more) to see a doctor if you pay a visit to an emergency room, which can feel like much longer if you’re already acutely sick or in pain. Thankfully, telemedicine services let you monitor emergency room wait times from the comfort of your home, so you can go when the line is shortest and you can see a doctor quickly, rather than languishing uncomfortably in a waiting room.
View and send your medical records to anyone, anywhere
For decades, the healthcare system depended on faxing paper forms back and forth. While most hospitals and facilities have finally made the transition to digitally-based healthcare software, telemedicine services are taking things one step further by improving patients’ access to their own electronic health records (EHRs). Not only can you view your own medical forms, but you can also send them to other people whom you’d like to have access to your records, whether that’s a family member, spouse or partner. You’ll never have to wonder if you’re up-to-date on shots or lose a medical form in a stack of papers. Instead, you can search and share digital files all in one easy-to-access, secure telehealth app.
Experience better healthcare outcomes
Telemedicine can help improve patients’ health in a number of ways. Certain forms of telehealth treatment, particularly telemedicine for mental illness, have been shown to be comparable to in-person care. Because of the convenience and efficiency of telemedicine, you can also see a doctor quickly to address a health problem right away, rather than having to wait until it becomes quite serious. You’re also exposed to less illnesses because you don’t have to sit in a waiting room, reducing the risk that you will become sick. In turn, this decreases the number of both hospital admissions and hospital readmissions and can also shorten a hospital stay when one does occur.
Become more engaged in your own health
Even though you live in your body 24/7, taking care of your health can feel like a bit of a black box in the traditional healthcare system: You don’t have consistent access to your medical records, the prices aren’t transparent and you barely have any contact with your physician. Telemedicine is stripping away some of these barriers and bureaucracy, so the focus is returned to the patient. Telemedicine allows you to become more engaged in your healthcare journey by increasing your access to doctors and specialists, creating digital methods for real-time communication and making it easier to navigate insurance and costs.
While chatting with your doctor via video or texting with a nurse on a secure app may seem like a far cry from the traditional office visits, many patients find themselves won over by the convenience and efficiency of a telehealth appointment. Furthermore, recent technological advancements have increased price transparency and medical record access, making it easier for patients to make more informed decisions about their health. As the U.S. slowly shifts towards consumer/patient-centered healthcare services, telehealth is leading the way and there’s no doubt that telemedicine is here to stay—and to change the way both patients and doctors approach healthcare.