What to Know About Telehealth for Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. It causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, as well as limits range of motion in the affected areas. While its diagnosis typically includes an in-person physical exam, lab tests, and imaging, telehealth visits offer a wide array of options for OA patients, including initial consultation of your symptoms. You can also have routine follow-ups, prescription refills, medication adjustments, and much more through telehealth.

Supporting social distancing measures and increasing access to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged healthcare providers to not only increase precautions to continue safely seeing patients in-person but also pivot toward offering more telehealth services. Even if your healthcare provider previously did not offer telehealth services, it is worth checking with them again.

Telehealth services offer patients increased accessibility to specialists like rheumatologists, who can discuss and prescribe treatments, and dietitians and physical therapists, who can guide your at-home care plans and monitor lifestyle modifications. Your appointment may be conducted by phone or videoconferencing. 

Close up of a senior couple having a video call with their doctor

Marko Geber / Getty Images

When to Use Telehealth for Osteoarthritis

You can use telehealth for osteoarthritis if you have questions about your diagnosis or disease progression or if you’d like to revise your treatment plans and follow up with your doctor. Examples of specialists you may visit through telehealth include primary care physicians, rheumatologists, physical therapists, and dietitians. 

You can use telehealth for OA in the following scenarios:

  • You are seeking treatment advice regarding pain from a past joint injury.
  • You have a family history of OA and want to learn ways to reduce your personal risk.
  • You want to learn safe exercises that can help reduce pain and inflammation and increase your mobility, balance, and daily functioning.
  • Your current treatment plan for OA has stopped working.
  • You are experiencing a new symptom.
  • You are experiencing mild side effects from your prescription medication.
  • Your OA has progressed to the point where you do not feel able to drive (either due to joint pain or the effects of pain medications).
  • You want to learn if there are dietary measures you can take to help reduce symptoms.
  • You live too far away from and cannot travel to the healthcare professional you need to see.

You May Need to Be Seen In Person If…

An in-person visit is needed if:

  • A physical exam is needed to confirm your diagnosis.
  • An X-ray has been recommended to determine the extent of your joint damage.
  • Your doctor or specialist has ordered a blood or urine test to check kidney or liver functioning before or after prescribing a medication or to confirm your diagnosis. 
  • You are experiencing severe side effects from your medications, such as an allergic reaction.

Benefits and Challenges

While it's a relatively new way of offering care, research has shown that telehealth physiotherapy programs empower OA patients and can improve physical functioning and quality of life.

Having the option to attend appointments from the comfort and safety of home can be a great relief for people with OA because it bypasses the barriers to in-person visits they often face, including limited mobility. Telehealth may even offer better assessment because it allows physical and occupational therapists to observe you and assess your ability to navigate and take care of yourself in your home. 

Additional benefits of telehealth include:

  • It doesn't require the additional work of arranging transportation, a full day off of work, or child or pet care, and is therefore cost-effective compared to in-person visits.
  • It opens the door to out-of-town patients who may not otherwise be seen due to the cost of traveling and lodging.
  • It eliminates the need to leave the house for medical appointments and reduces the risk of in-person exposure to COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses.
  • It allows your family members to participate in your care and get to know your condition better.

Limitations of Telehealth for OA

But telehealth is not without its challenges. Finger and wrist osteoarthritis may limit your keyboarding capabilities and can create challenges in holding devices like cell phones and tablets throughout an appointment.

You will also need access to a reliable internet connection and a device with a working video camera. Furthermore, it can be challenging to find a quiet area free from distractions from pets and others in your household during your appointment time. Technology can also be difficult for some patients to navigate, creating frustration. Talk to your doctor if these are problems you foresee and find out if other options may be arranged. 

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for Osteoarthritis 

Your first step is determine the primary reason for scheduling a telehealth visit (e.g., prescription refill or a physical therapy session). This will confirm which provider you should book the appointment with and whether this is something that can be addressed in a telehealth appointment. If your provider doesn’t offer telehealth services, you can ask them for a referral or search online for other providers who do provide these services.

Consider asking a homecare nurse, spouse, adult child, or trusted friend to attend your telehealth appointment and be the note taker so you can direct your full attention to the clinician and have a record of the visit for later. If this is not an option, ask the provider if they will fax or email you any crucial appointment takeaways.

Ways to prepare include:

  • Writing a brief agenda of points you’d like to cover during your appointment. This may include keeping a diary of the frequency and severity of your symptoms and medication side effects or writing down specific questions about your medications.
  • Asking your provider whether the appointment will be by phone or video.
  • Ensuring you have access to the platform proposed by your provider. For example, you may be required to create a sign-in or download an app in advance. It’s a good idea to do a trial run to avoid delays or issues on the day of your appointment.
  • Making sure your device is fully charged or plugged in.
  • Checking with your insurance provider (if applicable) to ask about telehealth benefits.
  • Choosing loose clothing that is easy to roll-up to show areas of inflammation or swelling if needed.  
  • Photographing previously flared joint areas so you can send them to your provider before your appointment and refer to them during your call.

If you will be using a public computer, call ahead to reserve it and ask about options to increase privacy. These may include reserving a private room for the duration of your call or bringing headphones. If your internet connection is unstable, discuss this ahead of time with your provider. You may be able to turn your camera off after the initial check-in. This can help reduce the likelihood of audio lags and screen freezes. 

Will Insurance Cover Telehealth for Osteoarthritis?

While the exact coverage depends on your provider and specific plan, many have emergency action plans in place that cover telehealth appointments and waive cost-sharing or deductibles. 

For more information specific to your insurance provider, go to the American Health Insurance Providers website. You can also call your insurance provider directly and ask for information from your telehealth provider. You can also check with the billing department of your doctor's office to learn more about insurance coverage of telehealth services.

What Happens During the Visit

What happens during a telehealth appointment for osteoarthritis is very similar to what happens during an in-person visit. You can expect the healthcare professional to ask questions to get a clear understanding of how they can best support your needs.

Questions they may ask include:

  • What is your primary concern and what kind of help are you seeking?
  • What symptoms have you been experiencing?
  • What ways have you been managing your osteoarthritis or in what ways has your condition become unmanageable?
  • Have you noticed certain activities or medications are making your osteoarthritis worse?
  • Are you experiencing side effects from the current treatment plan?
  • How has your health condition changed since your last visit?

If in-person tests or physical examinations are recommended, you can expect to do a follow-up telehealth visit after results are sent to your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell 

Whether you are newly diagnosed or have been living with osteoarthritis for years, you deserve access to quality telehealth care during the pandemic and beyond. Telehealth offers many benefits for patients with OA, from increased access to specialists to the ability to discuss your health concerns without leaving home or needing to travel. If you think telehealth may be right for you, call your current healthcare provider and discuss your options. The sooner you check in, the sooner you can be seen and supported via telehealth.

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Article Sources
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