What to Know About Telehealth for Orthopedics

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The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the importance of using telehealth to provide care for patients. Telehealth may be the future of medicine and allow you, the patient, to visit your physician or healthcare professional using digital means, like a computer or tablet.

Many doctors' offices are taking precautions to maintain social distance and to limit the number of people that visit their offices each day. Telehealth allows you to receive care while staying safe at home.

One healthcare professional that may offer telehealth services is an orthopedist. An orthopedist is a specialist who evaluates and treats patients with injuries to their bones, joints, muscles, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.

Telehealth for orthopedics may be an option for you if you have an orthopedic condition that requires care, but you wish to remain at home for convenience or safety reasons. Orthopedic telehealth is also a good option if you are unable to leave your home due to your condition or difficulty securing travel.

An orthopedist conducts a telehealth visit with a client

Ergin Yalcin / iStock / Getty Images

When to Use Telehealth for an Orthopedic Problem

There are certain situations where you may benefit from using telehealth for orthopedics. These may include minor and routine problems that are not emergent in nature. These instances include:

  • Minor joint aches and pain from arthritis
  • Minor sprains and strains
  • Low back pain, neck pain, or sciatica
  • After uncomplicated orthopedic surgery where you may need to simply check in with your surgeon
  • If you need to discuss medication use or changes with your orthopedic specialist

Keep in mind that you may not see an orthopedic surgeon during your orthopedic telehealth visit. A mid-level professional like a nurse practitioner or physician assistant often performs the telehealth visit for orthopedics and reports their findings to your orthopedic surgeon.

If your condition warrants, your orthopedic physician may follow up with you to get more information or provide treatment.

While your orthopedist can diagnose and treat minor problems via telehealth, major problems that require significant care may require an in-person visit to diagnose and treat them properly.

You May Need to Be Seen in Person If...

Your orthopedist may need to see you in person if:

  • You require special tests like an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or bloodwork to diagnose and treat your condition accurately.
  • You have suffered trauma that is causing pain or limited mobility. You may need to skip the telehealth visit and go directly to your emergency room or urgent care center.

Benefits and Challenges

There are certain benefits to using telehealth for orthopedics. These may include:

  • Ability to diagnose and treat minor injuries to your skeletal or muscular system
  • Allows your orthopedist to provide care for routine conditions and problems
  • Ability to remain at home if leaving your home is difficult due to your condition
  • Maintains safety; staying at home using telehealth limits the chance that you will spread or contract a communicable disease (such as COVID-19).
  • Cost savings: Often, telehealth services are provided with little or no out-of-pocket costs to the patient.
  • Less waiting and travel time

There may be certain challenges or barriers to using telehealth for orthopedics. These may include:

  • Unable to fully diagnose your condition: Often, orthopedists rely on palpation, measurements of joint range of motion or muscle strength, or X-rays to diagnose your condition.
  • Difficulty with technology
  • Limited access to broadband internet
  • Difficulty with reimbursement: Telehealth use in orthopedics is a relatively newer form of providing health care, and your insurance company may not fully cover the service.

Despite its challenges, telehealth in orthopedics may be a good option for you if you require routine care for minor problems with your muscles, bones, joints, or ligaments.

Are patients typically satisfied with orthopedic telehealth? The research indicates that they are.

A 2021 study published online in the journal Telemedicine and e-Health surveyed 100 patients following their sports medicine telehealth visit. Patient satisfaction with their telehealth visit was 4.76 out of 5, and a significant number of patients receiving telehealth would recommend it to others for care.

A 2020 meta-analysis of studies related to telehealth in orthopedics was published in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare concluded that "evidence suggests that telemedicine in orthopedics can be safe, cost-effective, valid in clinical assessment and with high patient/clinician satisfaction."

Telehealth in orthopedics appears to allow you to have a routine visit with your orthopedist while receiving accurate medical care with maximal convenience and safety.

How to Prepare for an Orthopedic Telehealth Visit

Preparing for your telehealth orthopedic visit is key to having a successful meeting with your provider. Before having a telehealth visit, you should contact your orthopedist's office and ask if they perform telehealth.

Some offices provide a secure portal to have your telehealth visit electronically, often referred to as an e-visit. Some orthopedic offices conduct an interview-style visit over the phone. This may serve as a triage opportunity; if your interview sounds like you may have a serious problem, an in-office visit may be requested by your orthopedist.

Things you can do to prepare for your telehealth visit may include:

  • Have a list of your medications and dosages handy.
  • Contact your insurance company to ensure that orthopedic telehealth is a covered service.
  • Understand your medical history including the history of the problem that brings you to orthopedics.
  • Ensure your computer or electronic device and its camera are working properly.
  • Ensure your internet service is working properly.
  • Wear clothing that allows you to move around or expose the body part that requires attention.
  • Have space to move around; your provider may require that you move your body in various directions to diagnose and treat your condition.
  • Have a notepad and pencil ready to take notes during your visit.

By preparing for your telehealth visit, you can be sure to get the best care possible from your orthopedist. Failure to be ready for your visit may result in an inaccurate diagnosis, limited time with your orthopedic provider, or a missed appointment.

Will Insurance Cover Orthopedic Telehealth?

Medicare and Medicaid have expanded coverage for telehealth. Most private insurance companies recognize the importance of telehealth, especially in uncertain times surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many insurance companies are waiving out-of-pocket costs like copays and deductibles to help steer patients towards telehealth. It is always best to check with your personal insurance to understand what is (and is not) covered in orthopedic telehealth.

What Happens During the Visit

When you have a telehealth visit with orthopedics, you should expect certain things to happen.

First, your doctor will provide you with a method to log into the digital platform to have the visit. This is typically required to be compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and ensures that your telehealth visit with your orthopedist is private.

Usually, a special link will be emailed to you. Click the link, and wait for someone at your orthopedist's office to let you into the virtual meeting space. You may be asked to consent to using telehealth via an online form, or to verbally give consent at the start of the visit.

Once you are logged in, your orthopedic professional will also log in and meet with you via a video conference. They will ask questions about your condition, how things are feeling and changing, and ask about any recent trauma or surgery that may have caused your symptoms.

Questions about your medical and surgical history will also be asked. Your orthopedic practitioner will review your medications as well.

Your doctor may wish to inspect the body part that is being examined during your visit. Simply follow your doctor's instructions as to how they wish to see your body; exposing your ankle, knee, elbow, or shoulder should not be a problem.

Your doctor may ask you to move your body in specific directions and then compare those motions to the side of your body that is not injured. If you are having a telehealth visit for back pain or neck pain, your practitioner may ask that you move your back or neck, and they may check your posture in sitting and standing positions.

At the conclusion of the orthopedic telehealth visit, your physician may make one or several recommendations. These may include:

  • Visiting the orthopedist's office for further work-up and diagnostic studies
  • Starting or changing certain medications
  • Applying heat or ice to your injured body part
  • Visiting an orthopedic physical therapist or occupational therapist for treatment
  • Proceeding to your local urgent care center or emergency department (for severe conditions or injuries)

Once your doctor establishes a plan of care for your condition during your orthopedic telehealth visit, they will then conclude by asking if you have any questions. Be sure to take a moment to understand your condition, diagnosis, and plan of care, and ask any questions if you have them.

Then, your physician will conclude the appointment. If you need any follow-up care, you may need to call to orthopedist's office to schedule another telehealth appointment or an in-person visit.

A Word From Verywell

The global health pandemic caused by COVID-19 made the use of telehealth services essential and ubiquitous. Telehealth for orthopedic conditions may pose a special challenge, as your doctor may not be able to fully examine your orthopedic injury or condition.

Still, the benefits of telehealth in orthopedics outweigh its limitations. Being able to get an accurate orthopedic diagnosis and plan of care from the comfort and safety of your home may be the best way to move better and feel better if you have an orthopedic condition.

If you are having a problem with movement due to a bone, joint, muscle, ligament, or tendon condition, call your doctor to ask if orthopedic telehealth is right for you.

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  1. Greif DN, Shallop BJ, Rizzo MG, et al. Telehealth in an orthopedic sports medicine clinic: the first 100 patientsTelemedicine and e-Health. 2021 Jan 29. doi:10.1089/tmj.2020.0462

  2. Haider Z, Aweid B, Subramanian P, Iranpour F. Telemedicine in orthopaedics and its potential applications during COVID-19 and beyond: A systematic reviewJ Telemed Telecare. 2020 Aug 6:1357633X20938241. doi:10.1177/1357633X20938241