Everyone who has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic knows that life as we know it can change within a matter of days. While millions of Americans have spent time “sheltering in place,” we’ve also gotten a crash course in the way we communicate with doctors.

Whether you’re vulnerable to infection and need to avoid high-risk areas such as doctors’ offices or you’re unable to travel for an appointment with a specialist, telemedicine can be an effective way to receive medical care through so-called “virtual visits.”

Telemedicine: Is it right for you?

Telemedicine isn’t brand new. Early forms were used to serve astronauts in space, while some patients in rural and remote areas have relied on it for years to get medical advice. But with recent changes that increase insurance coverage and more awareness about its benefits, telemedicine is really taking off.

In the four years prior to the new coronavirus, patients’ use of telemedicine doubled with up to 30% of doctors in the US participating, according to the American Medical Association. During the recent pandemic, US medical centers have reported significant increases in their use of telemedicine.

How does it work? While the simplest form relies on a phone call, audio and visual technology, using your smartphone, tablet or computer, are incorporated in more sophisticated telemedicine programs. Unlike texting, e-mail or talking on the phone, you can show your doctor a rash, swelling or an eye infection. You may be able to accomplish much of what you can during an in-person office visit without leaving home.

Note: Even though regulations have been loosened around patient privacy in response to the recent pandemic, platforms, such as Doxy.me, that comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) typically are used.

While you’re most likely to find telemedicine at major medical centers, an increasing number of local health-care systems have begun offering it. Call your doctor to see if this service is offered. Your local hospital may offer telemedicine for follow-up visits after you’ve been discharged.

Common ailments that can be treated by telemedicine include back pain, colds, mental health, eye problems, allergies and suspected infections (including sinus and urinary tract infections). In some cases, follow-up doctor appointments for chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, also can be done via virtual visits. Health education, such as programs that teach patients to get started with a diabetes education plan, may rely on telemedicine, too.

Telemedicine: Pros and cons

One of telemedicine’s biggest advantages is that it removes the inconvenience of travel. For an average doctor appointment, studies suggest that less than 20% of the patient’s time is dedicated to the actual visit. The rest is spent traveling and waiting.

Of course, not all patients can be cared for with telemedicine alone. Some aren’t comfortable with this service’s technological side. With telemedicine, as with emergency medicine, the doctor also needs to make sure that he/she has enough information to know what is needed next. It may be an X-ray, an electrocardiogram (ECG) or a blood test. Most of the time, a health system telemedicine program can facilitate further testing and close the loop.

But a virtual office visit is effective more often than you might expect. About 40% of office visits and 30% of emergency room visits could be replaced with telemedicine, according to a review of older adults’ medical ­records published in Academic Emergency Medicine.

Who pays for telemedicine?

Regulations and varying policies on insurance reimbursement have slowed the adoption of telemedicine in the US. With the recent pandemic, however, many of the barriers have been temporarily lifted. For example, Medicare coverage has been extended to allow new and established patients, depending on certain conditions, to use telemedicine for doctor visits (even if unrelated to COVID-19), regardless of the physician’s location.

Many Medicare Advantage plans and private insurance plans also offer telemedicine as a benefit. Most states either require private insurers to cover telemedicine, as they would an in-­person visit, or have introduced legislation to do so. However, few states have determined the rate that will be paid.

No matter what type of insurance you have, check before a virtual visit to see whether it will be covered. Even if your insurer does not provide coverage, it may be worthwhile to pay for a telemedicine visit rather than expose yourself to an infection or lose hours of time to travel. The cost of a virtual visit varies depending on location but ranges from $40 to $99—and often is less than the cost of an in-person visit.

Preparing for a telemedicine visit

The best way for patients to prepare for a virtual visit is to make sure that they are on Wi-Fi and that their device’s camera and microphone are enabled. It can be helpful to do a FaceTime or Skype call with a friend to see if everything is working prior to the virtual visit.

Just like an in-person visit, you should write down your questions before the virtual visit and then write down the instructions the doctor gives you. Some health-care systems send patients the instructions so they have them to refer back to. Note: If you prefer to have a phone-only visit with your doctor, that also may be possible. Check with your doctor and insurer.

The future of telemedicine

Many states have adopted telemedicine as part of their pandemic testing protocol. With a virtual visit, patients can ask questions about possible exposure…what symptoms to look for…steps to take if they’ve been exposed to a person diagnosed with COVID-19…and where to find a testing location if they are showing specific symptoms. Those who test positive for COVID-19 but are well enough to recover at home can be monitored via telemedicine visits.

If telemedicine performs well during this pandemic, it may lead to wider availability and more uniform insurance coverage going forward.

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