What to Know About Telehealth for IBS

Remote appointments can help in management

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that can be difficult to manage. After getting a diagnosis, treating IBS may mean working with several different healthcare professionals. Before the coronavirus pandemic, telehealth services were not commonly used to treat gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS.

Some parts of receiving care for IBS might still need to be done in person, such as procedures or lab work. However, there are other aspects of treating IBS that could be accomplished through telehealth appointments, such as nutritional advice, mental health care, and education.

The healthcare professionals who might engage with people who have IBS include primary care providers, dietitians, gastroenterologists, and mental health professionals. 

A person using the computer for a telehealth visit about IBS (When to Use Telehealth for IBS)

Verywell / Joules Garcia

When to Use Telehealth for IBS

You can use telehealth for a variety of appointments to manage irritable bowel syndrome. Telehealth may also be helpful in arranging appointments with specialists who are far away or would normally be otherwise inaccessible.

In some cases, patients may find that they have more opportunities to talk to providers and get questions answered because telehealth appointments may be easier to arrange. For getting blood work or procedures such as endoscopy, appointments in person will still be needed.

Lab Work Results

In the diagnosis of IBS, there might be a need for several different types of lab work, such as stool and blood tests, to be completed. After the initial diagnosis, lab work might be looked at from time to time in the management of IBS.

For instance, if there is a medication prescribed to treat the IBS, there might be a need to get some lab work done soon after starting it or at regular intervals.

Blood tests must be done in person, and stool tests might need to be done at a lab (or at least the samples dropped off there). But the test results could be discussed with a healthcare professional over a telehealth appointment so they can direct the management of your IBS.

Mental Health Care

Part of treating IBS may also include various mental health interventions. This could include working with a therapist, a psychologist who specializes in digestive disease, or receiving gut-directed hypnotherapy.

In some cases, these appointments might be available over telehealth, although certain parts of more intensive therapy might still be done in person. Treatment for IBS using various methods, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or hypnotherapy, may be as effective over telehealth as they are in person.

Nutritional Consultations

The management of IBS will usually involve making adjustments to diet. How this is done will be different from patient to patient. However, it's usually necessary to have various touchpoints with a dietitian to make a diet plan.

Because diet usually doesn't stay the same, there is also a need for adjustments from time to time as a patient figures out what works and what doesn't. It's possible to work with a dietitian over telehealth, and this approach may be helpful in a variety of ways.

A video call gives the provider a chance to see where a patient prepares and eats their food and even the tools they have available to them.

Other IBS-Related Conditions

People who live with IBS may also experience signs and symptoms in their body outside of the digestive tract. In some cases, this can lead to referrals to other healthcare professionals. Treating the IBS might help in some instances, but it's important to also distinguish between problems that are not related to the IBS.

A telehealth appointment might be an easier or faster way to see a provider in order to understand if a sign or symptom is IBS-related or if it is truly a separate issue.

Routine Appointments

IBS is often considered lifelong, though the signs and symptoms may come and go. When new symptoms crop up or something else with one's health changes, it is a good time to check in with a primary care provider or a gastroenterologist.

While there may be a need to order lab work or other tests that need to be done in person, a telehealth appointment can be a good way to touch base with a provider and make a plan for the next steps.

You May Need to Be Seen in Person If…

Not every situation with IBS can be handled via telehealth. Consider seeking care in person or immediately for these signs or symptoms:

Benefits and Challenges

Telehealth has become more mainstream, which is one benefit, but there are still challenges to its use for IBS. Because IBS requires ongoing management, some patients might find that a mix between telehealth and in-person appointments may work best to manage their condition.

One major benefit of telehealth is not having to travel to an appointment. Some people with IBS experience abdominal pain and frequent diarrhea. Not having to drive, park, or take public transportation to an appointment eases some of the worries about having bathroom access

IBS is a common disorder and may affect as much as 10% of the population. It is a frequent reason for absenteeism from work or school. However, access to care isn't always available to everyone who lives with IBS.

Telehealth may be an option for people who are not insured or who are underinsured. There are some providers who may offer telehealth appointments at a lower cost. Patients can ask providers about telehealth options and if the cost is more manageable for those who don't have insurance.

As with all interventions that require access and technology, there are going to be barriers. One such hurdle is having the equipment needed to complete a telehealth appointment. In many cases, a device, either a tablet, phone, or computer, is needed. Additionally, installing a program or app on that device may also be necessary to access the appointment.

Another challenge is in completing the necessary paperwork. This might mean receiving documents through email or text and filling them out, and then sending them back to the provider's office. People who don't have access to a printer, scanner, or fax machine may find this task takes longer or is more challenging.

Plus, a certain level of tech-savvy may be needed to get this all completed. Enlisting help from a family member, friend, or neighbor might be necessary.

Finally, privacy is a major concern with telehealth. This includes both the privacy with the app or software that's used as well as privacy with having an appointment at home or in some other location.

The office staff at the provider's office or technical support should be able to answer questions about privacy with the software or app. Finding a quiet area away from others will be desirable for the appointment, but that can be difficult for anyone who has family members or roommates at home.

In some cases, providers may be able to have telehealth appointments that are only over the phone. This may be more accessible to those who don't have access to a device that can be used for a video visit.

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for IBS

The main point of contact for treating IBS might be a gastroenterologist, but it could also be an internal medicine, primary care, or family medicine doctor. People who live with IBS will want to check with their providers to find out if they are offering telehealth appointments.

To start the process of being ready to have telehealth appointments, there will often be paperwork. Every physician's office and institution will have its own setup. In some cases, there may be the ability to fill out any necessary forms electronically via a patient portal or other document management system.

Patients might also need to print, sign, email, or fax documents. Office staff should be able to answer any questions and offer help over the phone or email.

A telehealth appointment will be completed using an app or software. It's a good idea to get familiar with the app and download any software that's needed well ahead of the first appointment. The app or software developer can help in getting audio and video tested and in working out any problems.

The office staff at the physician's office or institution may also be able to help or provide some direction if there are problems. Having this all completed beforehand will ensure an appointment isn't delayed or missed because of technical problems.

Preparing for the actual appointment will mean planning differently than one would for an appointment in the clinic. It's important to consider the physical space and to find a place that's as quiet and private as possible.

Having everything needed on hand, such as prescription bottles, a list of questions, a way to take notes during the visit, and other healthcare professionals' names, can be helpful. The provider may also ask for a temperature and weight, among other measurements, so be prepared to provide those as needed.

A brightly lit room without distractions is also a good idea, especially if there's a need to show anything to the provider, such as a distended abdomen. Sending photos through the patient portal or by text before the appointment may also be useful. Using headphones may also help keep the visit more private and allow you to hear the provider more clearly.

Will Insurance Cover Telehealth for IBS?

Insurance coverage for telehealth has become more widely available during the pandemic. However, it's important to check with insurance carriers before scheduling appointments to determine if there will be any fees.

It's also going to be important to keep checking because once the public health emergency ends, coverage for telehealth may change again.

What Happens During the Visit

Appointments via telehealth will have many of the same elements of in-person visits. The appointment may start with talking to a staff member or nurse whose responsibility it is to "room" patients.

This can mean talking about the reason for the visit, taking measures of height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure (if a patient can do that at home), and going over current prescriptions. Providers or their staff may also ask for verbal consent from patients to complete the visit.

Patients might then see their provider and discuss all the same things done during an in-person visit. Because IBS affects the digestive system, some providers may ask patients to assess themselves for pain and tenderness in the abdomen. The provider will walk patients through anything they need to do to check their vital signs or do any other physical exam.

When the visit is over, there may also be another touchpoint with a staff member. This could be to close out the visit, schedule the next appointment, and plan for any new prescriptions or refills. The provider may also take care of this part of the visit themselves.

A Word From Verywell

Telehealth isn't going to be the solution for every visit with a healthcare professional. However, it does offer more flexibility and choices for people who live with conditions for which regular care is needed.

IBS is often managed throughout a lifetime. There may be times when there is a need for more intensive help from healthcare professionals to get signs and symptoms under control. There may also be periods when the IBS is largely controlled, but meeting with a professional such as a dietitian via telehealth for a tweak to the care plan may be useful.

Now that telehealth services are becoming more mainstream and available, they can be used by patients and providers who find value in them. People who live with IBS will want to let their providers know if they prefer telehealth or in-person visits and how they'd like to proceed with their care in the future.

3 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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  2. Everitt HA, Landau S, O'Reilly G, et al; ACTIB trial group. Assessing telephone-delivered cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and web-delivered CBT versus treatment as usual in irritable bowel syndrome (ACTIB): a multicentre randomised trial. Gut. 2019;68:1613-1623. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2018-317805.

  3. Lovell RM, Ford AC. Global prevalence of and risk factors for irritable bowel syndrome: a meta-analysis. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012;10:712-721.e4. doi:10.1016/j.cgh.2012.02.029

Additional Reading

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.