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How Does Telemedicine Work, and What Are the Benefits?

Telemedicine allows you to access medical care virtually for a wide range of healthcare conditions and concerns. These online visits offer many benefits, including convenience, reduced costs, and greater access to care.

Telemedicine is also called telehealth, evisits, e-health, or mhealth (m is for mobile). It’s the delivery of medical care from a distance. In other words, it’s healthcare that doctors provide virtually, outside the typical doctor’s office setting and face-to-face appointment.

Telemedicine may seem new. The widespread use of video conferencing has made it more common. But in reality, telemedicine has been around for many years.

For decades, doctors could perform a consult on a telephone call. Then, emails provided a way for patients to connect with their doctors. Although you can still choose to communicate with your doctor via phone or email, live telemedicine has become increasingly common.

Telemedicine isn’t just for busy workers. Originally, this kind of remote care was a great option for people living in rural or underserved communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a safer way to get medical care.

Increasingly, though, it’s become a helpful tool for people who can’t carve out time to commute to a doctor’s office and sit in a waiting room.

This article takes a closer look at how telemedicine works, along with its benefits and risks, and the steps you can take to ensure an effective telemedicine appointment.

What is telemedicine, and how does it work?

The terms “telemedicine” and “telehealth” are often used interchangeably, but the two have some differences.

“Telehealth” is a broader term. It’s defined as the use of technology in all healthcare functions. That may include electronic portals for storing or transferring health records. It can also include devices that can remotely monitor vital measurements.

Telemedicine is a type of telehealth. It is the use of information or communication technologies to get clinical services from your doctor. The goal of telemedicine is to deliver care and hopefully improve health outcomes.

To put it another way, telemedicine is the use of technology to bypass the traditional in-office visit and still get good results.

By any definition, telemedicine is designed to let patients have access to a healthcare professional in a more timely manner. That often means an appointment without the need to take time off work or find child care, commute, and wait in a traditional office or clinic.

It can also be useful for people who do not have transportation or people who live too far from a clinic or doctor’s office to get routine care.

Today, doctors provide telemedicine primarily with video calls. The internet makes these types of interactions easier. People can use a smartphone, tablet, computer, or another connectable device.

How a telemedicine appointment works

The way telemedicine appointments work can vary from one healthcare system to another, but they generally follow a format similar to the one below:

To start, you will connect to an online portal. There, you’ll provide information about what symptoms you’re experiencing or what services you need. Then, the healthcare professional will enter the portal.

You and the doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, or another medical professional will go over your medical history and discuss your symptoms or concerns.

Your healthcare professional may also ask you to take measurements like temperature, blood pressure, or heart rate. If you have the tools to do that, this can be helpful.

For surgery follow-up appointments, your doctor may have asked you to keep a series of monitoring devices at your home. These devices send results to your doctor or healthcare team. Doctors can connect remotely to monitoring tools for blood pressure, oxygen, weight, and more so that they can have real-time readings.

At the end of your online visit, your doctor may prescribe medication for you, which they can send directly to your pharmacy.

If the virtual appointment is inconclusive, or if your doctor feels it’s important to connect with you face-to-face, they may ask you to make a follow-up in-person appointment. On the other hand, if you and your doctor feel satisfied with what you covered during your virtual visit, you can end your session and log off the portal.

What types of appointments work well for telemedicine?

Telemedicine is not meant to replace in-person, face-to-face care. But it can be a good option for many types of care. These include:

  • regular check-ups for ongoing or recurring health conditions
  • treatment of infectious conditions, like a cold, flu, or COVID-19
  • treatment of minor conditions, like a cough, allergies, minor back pain, sprains, or strains
  • dermatology appointments for the treatment of skin conditions
  • mental health care services, including therapy, medication management, and counseling
  • monitoring a new medication you may have started taking
  • conversations about results from tests your doctor ordered
  • surgery follow-up
  • consultations with a specialist

The use of telemedicine is not limited to these services, however.

Radiologists may use telemedicine to show results of scans or X-rays to a patient. Oncologists can convene a consultation with a patient and other members of a cancer care team. A neurologist can use telemedicine to provide stroke recovery analysis.

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