A doctor speaks with a father and son over a cell phone.

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Telehealth Visits 101: Prepping and Expectations

COVID-19, pediatric ‘visits’ and mental health are all on the virtual examining room table

The web can be a very scary place when looking for answers to medical questions. Anyone with even mild traits of a hypochondriac will know the pitfalls of looking to the internet to diagnose, treat or otherwise care for and learn about different sicknesses, diseases and viruses. 

Even so, a new reality of crowded hospitals and overrun health systems has made even the most squeamish turn to the digital universe for help managing their health. Fortunately, even before the pandemic hit, there was a significant shift toward using telehealth and telemedicine services (with the latter referring specifically to remote clinical services), including for children. 

Telemedicine lets doctors evaluate, diagnose and treat patients through a visit conducted via video or on the phone. The sessions can be for anything from a well-check visit, a follow-up or even an evaluation for COVID-19. This form of medical care could be new to both you and your physician and knowing what to expect and what to have on hand could make the transition smoother and help you get the most out of your visit.

What You Can Expect During Your Online Visit

Before your virtual doctors visit, make sure you’re in a relatively quiet, private and well-lit spot so you can openly speak to the doctor and are prepared for any possible physical examination they might perform by video.

Usually a video visit is initiated by a text message with a link asking you to join the physician in a secure conference call. You will then either be directly connected to the physician or to a nurse or medical assistant who will ask some basic questions before you are joined by the physician. If your physician is part of a large health system, the visit might be conducted through a secure patient portal that you will log into. For phone visits, you or the physician will initiate the call at the appointment time. 

The exam itself isn't too different from one that takes place in an office setting, with the exception of physical touch. The doctor will listen to your issue or concern, ask questions and examine you to the extent possible. At the end of the telemedicine visit, patients will be set up for either further testing, lab testing, imaging, further telemedicine or office visits, if necessary. Any prescriptions will be sent to a pharmacy or mail-order prescription service. Should you have any questions, you can call the office as you normally would. 

Virtual Pediatric Care

Just because we’re in the midst of a global pandemic doesn’t mean common childhood illnesses and allergies have disappeared. While issues like immunization shots or broken bones still require an office or ER visit, a virtual pediatric appointment makes it possible for kids to receive professional routine care during isolation.

Taking place over platforms like Zoom, FaceTime, or dedicated telehealth apps, virtual pediatrician visits require the same amount of preparation as a traditional appointment, with some tweaks. Making sure you're set up with everything you need before the appointment, such as a scale, a thermometer, any medications the child is taking, etc., can make the whole process a lot easier.

Parents should also create a written timeline of symptoms in the case of illness-related visits, as well as note any important questions or concerns they want to ask the doctor. Also, many telehealth platforms have a specific function to allow parents to send photos and relevant documents to the pediatrician in advance of the appointment (just as you would do for in-person appointments).

Mental Health Services

During this time of isolation and economic uncertainty mental health can suffer, often resulting in a spike of anxiety, depression and addiction. To try to address those needs, many mental health providers are adopting the techniques and technology of telemedicine to aid those in need of counseling.

"We want people to be aware of the flexibilities that will be in place now that will allow them to get care and treatment," Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services and head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration told NPR.

Dealing with issues ranging from anxiety to couples counseling, online therapy allows patients to connect with a licensed and experienced mental health counselor from the privacy of their device – often at a significantly lower cost than traditional, in-person therapy.  

Finding Affordable Online Medical Care

Insurance coverage for telemedicine varies by state but with the current pandemic, many providers have amended their policies and in some cases have even waived co-pays. It is advisable to call your provider before your visit to see what will be covered. 

For those without health coverage, there are a number of options out there that provide online medical services for little to zero cost.

  • MD Live allows patients to connect to medical and pediatric doctors and access behavioral health therapy services and psychiatry whenever they need it. MDLIVE offers convenient access to a doctor for non-emergency issues when primary care physicians are not available. Average wait times are said to be under 15 minutes to consult with a state-licensed and board-certified physician
  • LiveHealth brings qualified doctors to you whenever you need them, at no cost. Just sign up, log in, and choose the right doctor for your needs. Doctors using the app provide care for everything from the flu and bronchitis to allergies, skin infections, and much more. The app also features licensed therapists, lactation consultants, registered dietitians and other professionals.
  • TalkSpace is a convenient, affordable and effective way to work toward improving your mental health for rates starting at $25 a week. This subscription service lets you send unlimited text, audio, picture, or video messages at any time to your therapist. You’ll hear back at least once per day, five days a week. You can also choose to add live video sessions.