You May Be Able To Get Medical Treatment From A ‘virtual Doctor’ Without Ever Leaving Your Couch

Keep your germs at home and get the medical help you need online.

When you, your child or another family member is ill, the last thing you want to do is head to the doctor’s office, urgent care or emergency room. The person who is under the weather would probably like nothing more than to stay parked on the couch in their pajamas. And then, of course, there’s the matter of sitting in a crowded room filled with other sick people who are coughing, sneezing and potentially spreading other illnesses.

But what else can you do?

Well, you could see a doctor from the comfort of home by consulting a doctor online. Yes, really.

What Are Virtual Doctor Visits?

If you have a non-emergency medical need that probably doesn’t require hands-on treatment (such as tests or bandages), you can talk to a physician via video, phone or mobile app.

After you explain your symptoms, the doctor will likely ask you further questions about how you feel. Along with advising you on treatment options, the physician can also prescribe medications and provide medical forms, such as absence notes for work or school.

So-called “telehealth” services aren’t just for illness, either. Virtual doctors can help with everything from dermatology care to lactation support to smoking cessation and more.

Unsplash | Kelly Sikkema

Finding A Virtual Doctor

Start by checking with your health insurance provider. Many major insurance programs offer telehealth options for a relatively low copay. Your primary care provider, pharmacist and local emergency room or urgent care may be able to refer you to a telehealth provider, as well.

If you do not have insurance, a virtual visit may be an affordable alternative to urgent care or other treatment options. Virtual doctor visit fees are about half the cost of in-person visits.

Some doctors strictly provide services via telemedicine, such as Dr. Timothy Howard, a family physician in Alabama. He switched to telehealth when he saw how implementing electronic medical records was reducing his practice’s margins.

“I was having to cut my patient workload 25 percent just to keep up with the EMR. I saw that coming and saw the frustration, so I ended up deciding to leave my private practice and do telehealth full time,”Howard told Healthcare Informatics. “It’s revolutionized my ability to care for patients and in some senses, it’s brought [me] closer to patient care. I don’t have all these buttons to punch in the office EMR that took me away from taking care of patients.”

Other doctors offer televisits as an alternative option for their existing patients. A recent survey of nearly 100 healthcare executives by Baltimore-based healthcare research, strategy and marketing firm Sage Growth Partners shows that 56 percent have implemented telemedicine in their organization.

doctor on phone photo
Getty Images | Mario Villafuerte

Pros And Cons

Virtual doctor visits do have their drawbacks. For instance, the doctor cannot touch you, perform tests or take vital readings, such as your temperature and blood pressure.

Some medical experts discuss other downsides of telemedicine, such as privacy and security issues, the inability to detect domestic violence or suicide risks and the potential risks of prescribing certain medications outside of a traditional healthcare setting.

Others say the technology enables them to provide better care.

“I have the patient’s electronic medical record in front of me with his history, adverse events and previous consults,” Howard said. “It’s just like taking a call in my regular practice but with better information.”

How To Connect

Although services offered vary, there are several ways to connect with a telehealth doctor, including the following.

  • On the phone: Typically, you set up an appointment with the service and phone in at your appointed time. Alternatively, the health care provider will phone you.
  • Videochat: Using your computer or mobile device, you have a conversation over Skype, Facebook Messenger or a similar videoconferencing program using the internet. You and the doctor can both see and hear one another.
  • Via an app: Some services offer their own mobile apps through which you text, talk or videochat with a provider.

When A Virtual Visit Makes Sense

In certain scenarios, a virtual doctor visit might make more sense than an in-person appointment. For instance, if it is flu season and you are seeking help with a rash, you can avoid the dangerous germs at the office, urgent care or emergency room. Telemedicine can also be used for ongoing care of disorders such as diabetes. Your healthcare provider can monitor your health and provide treatment options remotely.

When To Seek In-Person Care

If you experience a medical emergency, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, major injuries or any other disabling or life-threatening condition, you should call 911. In addition, it is best to seek treatment in person if you have any of the following:

  • High fever
  • Cuts, wounds or burns
  • Broken bones
  • Severe pain
  • Loss of consciousness