What to Know About Telehealth for Gallbladder Disease

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Logging on to your computer or phone is a common way to access your doctor ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. These telehealth services are available for a wide range of conditions, including gallbladder disease. The term “gallbladder disease” is broad and refers to any medical conditions that impacts your gallbladder.

Your gallbladder is a small organ located around the top, right part of your stomach area. Its role is to store bile, which helps break down fatty foods.

The most common cause of gallbladder disease is gallstones, which are hardened deposits of cholesterol or other substances, but individuals may also contend with inflammation (cholecystitis) and growths or tumors.

More often than not, gallbladder disease will require an in-person visit in order to run tests to confirm the diagnosis. The severity of the disease may also require surgery.

Although doctor’s offices are beginning to see patients in person at limited capacity, telehealth is an option for those wanting follow-up and preventive care for gallbladder disease. This provides ease in seeing many of the healthcare professionals that will have a hand in the treatment of your gallbladder disease, including your primary care physician, gastroenterologist, surgeon, or dietitian.

When to Use Telehealth for Gallbladder Disease

A diagnosis of gallbladder disease can’t be made without an in-person visit to complete a physical examination, lab tests, and/or an ultrasound. However, once the diagnosis is confirmed, there are several aspects of treating and managing gallbladder disease that can be handled virtually.

Since there are also mild symptoms of gallbladder disease, such as nausea, fever, and changes in bowel movements, that could be caused by other conditions, an initial telehealth visit could help determine if your symptoms are more serious and you need an in-person exam.

Lab Work and Imaging Results

Having a complete blood count test can determine if white blood cell counts are high, which often occurs in people with gallbladder disease. You may also require liver function tests (LFTs) that can indicate elevated bilirubin levels that result from complications of gallbladder disease (such as gallstone blockages or infections of the bile duct).

Bilirubin is found in bile and is a normal substance that is formed when red blood cells break down. When the liver is healthy, it can easily remove bilirubin from the body.

Imaging tests are necessary to confirm if the symptoms you’re having are actually caused by gallbladder disease. These include ultrasounds, computed tomography (CT) scans, and hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scans.

A HIDA scan requires injection with a radioactive tracer so that a camera can trace the flow through your gallbladder to determine any issues.

Another testing measure, ultrasounds, are one of the most accurate and noninvasive ways to diagnose gallbladder disease. It has an accuracy of about 95% in detecting gallstones that are 2 millimeters or larger and an 80% accuracy in determining cholecystitis.

Once these in-person tests are complete, your healthcare provider may choose to go over the results with you via a telehealth appointment. You may receive results or images through an app your provideruses or shared privately with other software.

Nutrition Consultation

Diet and nutrition are key components to reducing the risk of gallbladder disease and preventing gallstones. A telehealth appointment with a registered dietitian can help you with adjusting your dietary habits to improve symptoms and prevent them from occurring again.

Individuals who had surgery to remove their gallbladder may also benefit from a virtual consultation with a dietitian.

Post-cholecystectomy syndrome (when abdominal issues and other symptoms occur after surgery) affects up to 40% of individuals after surgery, and can cause an upset stomach, vomiting, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. People could also have issues with indigestion, fatty foods, and heartburn.

The nutrition therapy needed for this condition is individualized, and a registered dietitian will be able to provide you with recommendations based on your symptoms.

Postoperative Follow-Up Care

When gallbladder disease gets complicated, whether it’s recurrent gallstones or chronic inflammation, your doctor may recommend a cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal). This is a common surgery and has a low risk of complications. Often, patients will be discharged from the hospital on the same day as the surgery.

As with all surgeries, getting postoperative follow-up care is important to ensuring that you’re healing and recovering properly. Since complication rates are low following a cholecystectomy, telehealth visits could be easily substituted to avoid the need to drive back into the doctor's office.

Research has even indicated that a high percentage of patients were willing to do telehealth medicine for post-op care and were confident that their provider could conduct blood pressure monitoring, medication adherence, and evaluation of wounds virtually.

You May Need to Be Seen in Person If…

Certain symptoms could indicate a blocked duct or, in rare cases, cancer. In-person care should be sought if you have the following symptoms:

  • Severe abdominal pain (especially in the upper right part of the belly)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of eyes)
  • Lumps in the belly
  • Dark urine
  • Fever

Benefits and Challenges

Before choosing whether you want to go for an in-person appointment or telehealth visit, be sure to check with your healthcare provider so they can direct you on which treatment path would work best for you.

There is limited research on how telehealth can specifically benefit those with gallbladder disease, but it can offer overall benefits. They include:

  • Access to specialists: Gallbladder disease may require the care and expertise of a variety of healthcare providers. The first stop is typically a doctor who will run tests but may end up referring you to specialists such as a gastroenterologist or surgeon. Telehealth gives you the option to reach the best specialists from the comfort of your own home.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Beyond the fact that you can save yourself gas money to travel to a doctor's appointment, a 2020 review concluded that telehealth costs per examination were less than what it would cost to go in person. This could include individuals both with and without insurance.
  • Convenience: Since telehealth appointments can be handled virtually anywhere, you can set up an appointment without needing to travel and take time off work. This is especially helpful for those that live in rural areas.

When it comes to cons, if you’ve never had or been treated for gallbladder disease, it may be impossible to be diagnosed with the condition without an in-person visit.

The physical examination and lab tests need to be conducted in person in order to diagnose gallbladder disease, otherwise it could be mistaken for another condition. It can also be complicated for individuals to have access to a device or Internet that can support a telehealth visit. 

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for Gallbladder Disease

Before attending your appointment, download the application or software needed for the visit in order to feel more comfortable using it.

This includes finding a location in your home or on a public computer somewhere with a quiet atmosphere and good Internet connection. Some telehealth services may even be available to use on your cell phone.

Similar to in-office visits, you’ll likely be required to fill out documentation including insurance information, medical history, and medications so that the healthcare provider has those data before the appointment begins. If you have insurance, make sure that the appointment cost is included in your benefits.

For the appointment, be prepared to answer specific questions your doctor will ask regarding gallbladder disease. This could include:

  • Do you have pain in the mid- or upper-right portion of your abdomen?
  • Do fatty meals worsen the pain?
  • Does the pain occur after eating?
  • Do you have nausea, vomiting, or bloating?
  • Does the pain ever extend to your back?
  • Is the pain steady or intermittent?
  • Have you had fevers?
  • How long does it take for the pain to go away?
  • Do you take any medications?
  • Have you had any rapid weight loss?
  • Have you noticed darkening of your urine or yellowing of the eyes?

It could be helpful to provide photos of your symptoms, such as jaundice and abdominal swelling. If the telehealth appointment includes video as well, sit in a well-lighted room to make it easier for the provider to see.

Will Insurance Cover Telehealth for Gallbladder Disease?

Depending on what kind of insurance you have, the telehealth appointment may or may not be covered. However, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more insurance companies are covering or reimbursing telehealth appointments. This includes individuals that have Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial insurance.

The easiest way to confirm if your visit is covered is by calling your insurance provider. Coverage options may change as the public health emergency develops, so frequent check-ins with your insurance company will help you stay informed.

What Happens During the Visit

Your telehealth visit will be very similar to what you would experience during an in-person doctor's visit. If it’s your first appointment, you will log on to the necessary platform and interact with the medical staff, whether it is a physician, physician's assistant, or another healthcare provider.

Just as you would at an in-person doctor's visit, have a list of your concerns and questions that you want to ask about.

You will likely share symptoms and any changes you’ve noticed that are bringing you to this appointment, such as appetite, energy levels, or weight fluctuations. It may also be helpful to have a list of prescription medication, over-the-counter medicines, or supplements that you take along with dosages.

Since gallbladder disease can’t be diagnosed without a physical exam, the information you share may prompt the healthcare provider to set up an in-person exam and lab work. If that’s already been completed, this appointment could go over results and prescribe any necessary medications.

Postoperative care for gallbladder diseases can be done via telehealth as well to ensure you’re healing and recovering.

Continuing your care for gallbladder disease through telehealth visits is likely possible as long as symptoms don’t worsen or new symptoms don't occur.

A Word From Verywell

Telehealth services provide accessibility for patients and their healthcare team to treat and prevent recurring complications of gallbladder disease.

Although gallbladder disease cannot be diagnosed via telehealth, it can be managed and treated. If you are experiencing symptoms of gallbladder disease, setting up a telehealth appointment could be the first step to receiving the care that you need.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lauren Armstrong, RDN
Lauren Armstrong, RDN, is a writer and registered dietitian nutritionist with experience covering topics including general health, wellness, and chronic disease.