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AARP Answers: Telehealth and the Coronavirus

How to connect with a doctor and get care from home

Telehealth concept

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What is telehealth?

Telehealth refers to the use of technology — everything from telephones to video conferencing — to deliver health care and related services from a distance.

Are telehealth and telemedicine the same thing?

The terms are often used interchangeably, but generally speaking, telemedicine refers to the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by medical professionals (the virtual version of what you'd get during an office visit), while telehealth is a broader category that goes beyond the doctor-patient relationship to include other services such as provider training. Terms like “virtual visits” or “virtual care” may also be used to describe what is essentially seeing a health care provider without going to an office. 

What can (and can't) be done in a televisit with my health care provider?

You can be diagnosed, advised on treatment or therapy you can do at home, and monitored for a range of conditions or symptoms. Televisits can be used to address urgent care needs such as stomach flu or sinus infections, for example, or to manage chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and asthma, and for mental health services such as psychiatrist (telepsychiatry) or psychologist (telepsychology) sessions.

After you connect with your health care provider through your smartphone, computer or other device, you can expect to talk to your provider as if you were in the office, describing your symptoms or condition. You will likely answer follow up questions or comply with your provider’s requests if you can. For example, you might take your own temperature or blood pressure and share results. Your provider can prescribe and send medications to the pharmacy of your choice, as well as suggest other treatments or follow-up visits as needed.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued clarification allowing health care professionals to prescribe controlled substances through telemedicine as well. Providers were previously required by law to meet with the patient at least once in person before doing so.

Of course, in-office tests and procedures like blood work and hands-on exams are not possible with televisits. Nor is telemedicine a substitute for calling 911 or visiting the emergency room in the event of serious or life-threatening conditions such as loss of consciousness or broken bones.

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What types of providers may I see?

You may see a range of providers, including primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, mental health providers and specialists like dermatologists.

How does it work? What equipment do I need?

In some cases it may be as simple as using your telephone, with or without a video application..

For a video visit with a provider from your home, you'll need a smartphone, tablet or computer with a functioning camera and microphone. The exact process will vary depending on how you are connecting through to your provider. Typically, it is through a website or app.

Most often, you'll use the website or app to schedule an appointment and enter information such as your health insurance plan details, preferred pharmacy and the reason for your visit. At your confirmed appointment time, you and your doctor will both sign on to the website or app and the visit will begin.

To arrange a telemedicine visit, contact your own health insurer, which may offer options, a medical center or doctor, which may have options of their own, and ask about how to set up virtual care.

How much does it cost?

As with in-person doctor visits, the cost of telehealth services varies based on a variety of factors such as insurance coverage and the type and length of your visit. A 2017 study published in the journal Health Affairs found that, on average, a telehealth visit cost about $79, compared with about $146 for an office visit.

Will insurance pay?

It depends. In 32 states and the District of Columbia, health insurance plans are required to cover telehealth visits at the same rate they cover in-person services.  According to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), most private insurers cover at least some telehealth services. But before scheduling a televisit, it's a good idea to contact your health insurer to double-check your coverage.

Will Medicare pay for my visit?

Medicare has temporarily expanded coverage of telehealth services in response to the coronavirus outbreak, allowing beneficiaries of original Medicare to have virtual visits with their doctor (on a smartphone or other device) and without a copay for routine visits, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings. Providers are also able to reduce or waive cost sharing for these appointments. Medicare Advantage plans may offer additional telehealth benefits; check with your plan provider for details.