In recent years, telehealth has become an increasingly popular option for patient care, and this trend has skyrocketed in the wake of the pandemic. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020.
Telehealth has evolved significantly over the last year, with more doctors and hospitals utilizing a virtual patient care system. However, with virtual visits becoming more common, it’s raised many different questions and concerns. Is telehealth only for tech-savvy patients? Can a doctor give a proper exam virtually? Is telehealth only suitable for people who can’t travel to their doctor’s office?
To dive deeper into telehealth and separate fact from fiction, we spoke to Dr. Steven Shook, MD, Strategic Lead for Virtual Health at Cleveland Clinic.
When to see your doctor in person
You should visit your doctor in person if you need any type of emergency care. For example, if you’re experiencing stroke-like symptoms, call 911. In this case, you’ll need a hands-on assessment. Also, there are specialties—such as ophthalmology—where there’s a very significant hands-on component. You’ll need a dilated eye exam, for example, which can’t be performed through a virtual visit.
In most cases, however, Dr. Shook steers patients to do an initial in-person assessment whenever possible.
When telehealth is a good option
Telehealth works extremely well for express care. If you have seasonal allergies, back pain, cough or cold, a virtual urgent care system can be effective.
In addition, you can see a primary care doctor for following up with any kind of chronic disease management, medication management, and wellness assessments, all of which are great uses of telehealth. At the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Shook says that they’ve had great success with behavioral health counseling, geriatrics, dermatology and palliative medicine – areas where people have had wonderful experiences and continue to come back.
Shared medical appointments are another popular telehealth feature. This is when you have a virtual shared medical appointment, often for educational purposes. For instance, in behavioral health areas, like chemical dependency counseling and some of the intensive outpatient followup for depression. These appointments lend themselves very well to telehealth, Dr. Shook explains. They have also had success with pre and post-surgical assessments, sub-specialists second opinions as well as pre-in-person sub specialty assessments.
Also, for patients who are coming from a long distance, it’s helpful to have a conversation with the doctor and understand what their options are. This allows the patient to hit the ground running when they meet their doctor in person.
Top 6 Telehealth myths, busted
Here are the top myths about telehealth, according to Dr. Shook.
Myth #1: Telehealth is only for tech-savvy patients
Most virtual platforms are designed for people who are not tech-savvy, according to Dr. Shook. Doctors try to make it as simple as possible to connect virtually and they also provide tech support for anyone who isn’t tech-savvy.
Telehealth is beneficial for all types of people, including those who live far from their doctor, have mobility issues, or people who just can’t take time off work to see their doctor.
Myth #2: You have to have a high-end computer or phone to do a virtual visit
Telehealth is designed to work on all the modern operating systems, regardless of which type of device that you have. All you need is access to broadband or cellular in order to do a virtual visit. You don’t need to have the newest computer or smartphone.
Myth #3: Telehealth appointments are only for people who live far from their doctors
Virtual visits are for anyone who needs the convenience of a virtual appointment. This can include mobility problems, trouble taking off work or even connecting to other family members to join the visit. So, it’s useful for reasons other than long distance.
Telehealth allows doctors to connect patients and family members for shared appointments. For example, if a patient is coming for a virtual visit and their daughter wants to join in but can’t take off work, she can join that visit.
Myth #4: A doctor cannot effectively examine a patient during a virtual visit
There are some evolving exam techniques that doctors can do virtually. Most of what doctors would do in person for the exam, they can do through a telehealth visit. In many cases, doctors involve the patient themselves, or a family member in the visit, to contribute to the examination.
“We have some really exciting tools that are starting to evolve that will let us examine patients at a distance,” says Dr. Shook. “So, yes, you can be examined during your telehealth visit and that connection is going to improve as the technology improves.”
Myth #5: Telehealth visits are too expensive
Since the beginning of the pandemic, most insurance companies have started to cover virtual visits. Doctors are currently advocating for out-of-pocket parity, meaning that a patient shouldn’t have to choose the mode of care based on what it costs them out of their pocket.
Copays and fees associated with care should be the same for virtual visits and in-person visits. Thankfully, this is the case for most insurance companies. In that area, there’s been great progress; and it’s a trend that will most likely continue, Dr. Shook explains.
Myth #6: My health information isn’t secure
Doctors use HIPAA compliant platforms, so your health information is completely secure. At the Cleveland Clinic and most other health care organizations, since the beginning of the public health emergency, doctors are able to meet the needs of their patients using HIPAA compliant platforms. So, there’s no need to worry—security is taken very seriously.