Doctor visits can be a real pain. But nowadays you might not have to go through the hassle of scheduling and waiting for an appointment. Enter telemedicine. This service involves the use of web, phone or mobile app to consult with your doctor about minor ailments.

“It brings convenience and quality to medical visits by eliminating the reliance on urgent care or emergency departments,” says Dr. Timothy M. Howard, a family practitioner in Owens Cross Roads, Alabama, and president of the Teladoc Physicians Professional Association.

Telemedicine can be used to treat common medical conditions, such as the cold or flu, pinkeye and upper respiratory infections. “There is also the growing use of telemedicine for behavioral health needs, enabling individuals to access therapists and psychiatrists from the comfort and privacy of their own home,” Howard says. 

On-call connections

Telemedicine isn’t the future of care — it’s already here, and it’s growing in use and recognition, Howard says.

“More than ever, consumers are exhibiting reliance on digital health tools,” he says. “It’s the opportunity for people in rural areas, or people with critical conditions who need a specialist second opinion from across the globe, to access care with the click of a button. It’s bringing the doctor’s office to the living room.”

Dr. Ben Bobrow, associate director of the Arizona Emergency Medicine Research Center in Phoenix, created The Pain Project, a teletherapy program and online resource. He says telemedicine is being used to overcome barriers such as distance, privacy and mobility.

“More than 70 percent of health care providers are now using telehealth or telemedicine tools to connect with patients,” Bobrow says. “We are able to provide better care, and patients are happier not having to physically come into the office and wait in a waiting room. More and more patients are learning about telemedicine and are open to the idea.”

He says services can be accessed from “virtually anywhere” and from all types of mobile devices. “Video-based telehealth allows a two-way, face-to-face conversation between the client and therapist that provides a close and realistic interaction between doctor and patient,” Bobrow says.

Should you dial in?

Although telemedicine provides plenty of perks, including reduced cost and travel time for patients and providers, both doctors and patients should consider several implications.

“Startup costs, maintenance and upgrading of technology can be complicated and expensive,” says Melanie Hardy, assistant director of genetic counseling services at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “Video connections may be impacted by outside factors — like internet speed, technology capabilities and patient comfort with technology use — coverage for and provision of services may be dependent upon the provider having licensure in many states, a process that can be very time-consuming and expensive.”

However, some services are already being covered by insurances, and efforts to increase coverage for telemedicine services are in the works, she says. Costs differ based on the type of telemedicine being utilized. “We could not provide the same level of services without the use of telemedicine,” Hardy says.

Every ailment, of course, can’t be fixed via phone or tablet, Howard says, and sometimes you have to stomach the hassle of an in-person appointment.

“We can’t do things like fix a broken bone over the phone,” he says. “But in a wide range of cases, telehealth is a viable, safe, effective and high-quality care option. It’s not replacing a doctor visit — it is a doctor visit; it just happens to take place wherever you are.”

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