What to Know About Telehealth for the Flu

flu telehealth

After a winter season dominated by the novel 2019 coronavirus, it can be easy to forget another infectious respiratory virus—influenza. There are four main types of influenza viruses that circulate each year. Type A can cause large-scale infections (or pandemics) like we have seen with COVID-19.

Typically, some variant of the flu infects millions of people each year. The winter before the COVID pandemic took hold, there were about 38 million reported cases of influenza in the United States alone. Nearly 20 million people with the flu saw a doctor to get treated, 400,000 people were hospitalized, and 22,000 died. This year—mostly likely because of infection control measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19—flu cases are at an all-time low. Less than 2,000 flu cases have been recorded nationwide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and hospitalization and death rates have been minimal.

As the COVID pandemic is brought under control, new ways of controlling the spread of respiratory viruses may become a standard. The use of telehealth services has skyrocketed during the COVID pandemic, and will likely be a preferred method to control infectious diseases going forward. Keep reading to learn more about how telehealth services can be used to treat the flu, and when you will still need to see a doctor.

When to Use Telehealth for the Flu

Respiratory viruses can be difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms that come with the flu can also present with COVID-19 or even the common cold. Distinguishing what is causing your symptoms and how best to treat it can take some work.

Unfortunately, respiratory viruses are easily spread, and going to see a doctor can result in you sharing your virus or—if you're not sick already—catching a virus from someone else.

Telehealth has been around for years, but never really took off—until the COVID-19 pandemic. Just 11% of Americans were using telehealth for some aspect of their healthcare in 2019. By 2021, that number jumped to 46%, and 76% of people polled in a recent survey say they would consider replacing in-person healthcare visits with teleheath services.

While telehealth won't replace in-person care completely, there are a number of situations where a virtual visit with your doctor or another healthcare provider can help.

Some of the symptoms of the flu may mimic a common cold, other respiratory viruses, or even allergies. You may want to consult a telehealth provider if you have symptoms like:

  • fever
  • chills
  • cough
  • congestion
  • headache
  • aches and pains
  • tiredness or fatigue

With the flu and even colds, these symptoms can last for one to two weeks and are generally mild. Without testing your for one of the influenza viruses, there is really no way for a provider to tell over a telehealth appointment whether you have the flu, another virus, or even just a cold. While doctors or healthcare providers can offer guidance based on your symptoms alone, they can't officially diagnose you with influenza without a diagnostic test. If your doctor wants to perform a test for the influenza virus, you will most likely need to visit a healthcare facility or physician's office. As telehealth advances, there may be additional opportunities for self-testing at home with deliveries of anti-viral medications.

You may want to head to a doctor rather than choose a telehealth visit if your have a condition that puts you at high risk of flu complications such as:

  • people aged 65 and older
  • asthma
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • diabetes
  • chronic kidney disease
  • pregnancy
  • a compromised immune system

Even without any of these conditions, you may need to go see a healthcare provider in person if:

  • your symptoms become worse after they have started to improve
  • you have new weakness or dizziness
  • you aren't urinating
  • you have extreme pain or muscle aches
  • you have a persistent fever that isn't relieved with over-the-counter medications
  • your fever or cough return after a period of improvement
  • you have pain or pressure in your chest
  • you have seizures or other neurological disturbances
  • you become lethargic or are difficult to arouse
  • you have severe shortness of breath

When the flu is an emergency

If you are having trouble breathing, severe shortness of breath, or chest pain, you should call 911 ro go to an emergency department. These are medical emergencies that could be a sign of a more serious condition or infection.

Benefits and Challenges

Telehealth has many benefits, particularly when it comes to transmissible diseases or people who fall into high-risk health categories. There are a number of home monitoring devices that can now be used to help your doctor monitor your condition remotely.

Some of the benefits of telehealth services include:

  • decreased disease transmissions
  • allows for social distancing and quarantine
  • improved access to care in rural or low service areas
  • convenience
  • reduces the need for transportation or special medical transport
  • cost effective—copayments may be reduced or waived
  • remote monitoring of symptoms and disease progression
  • timely visits and diagnosis
  • no travel required for people who are home bound or lack transportation

While this may be helpful for routine visits and check-ins with your doctor, it can sometimes be more difficult to get the help you need through telehealth. For example, your doctor cannot listen to your lung sounds with a stethoscope, draw blood. or perform a flu test. People with chronic health conditions that put them at greater risk for flu complications may be better served seeing a doctor in person, so that the extent of their symptoms can be properly assessed. One complication of the flu is pneumonia, and it can be challenging for your doctor to diagnose this remotely. Typically, listening to your lung sounds in person and even and X-ray are required for a proper diagnosis of pneumonia.

There are also concerns that telehealth services may make people less willing or unable to go remote. These include:

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for the Flu

If you are interested in setting up a telehealth appointment, you may first want to contact your doctor's office or local healthcare facility to see if there are any local resources available. If not, there are a host of nationwide and private-pay telehealth services available. Unless you are prepared to use a private-pay service, you will also want to check if your health insurance provider covers telehealth visits—especially for the reason you want to be seen. Medicare and Medicaid, as well as a number of private health insurers have expanded their coverage and reimbursement of telehealth services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before your appointment you should:

  • know how you will meet the provider—by phone, video, etc.
  • understand the cost and who will pay for your visit
  • find out what information your provider will want from you
  • be aware of privacy and security measures in place to protect your health information

When it's time for your appointment to begin, you should treat it just as you would an in-person visit, with a few special considerations.

  • Find a private place for your appointment where there will be no distractions, and you and your provider can focus on the visit.
  • Make sure there is plenty of light so the provider can see you clearly.
  • Have a record of the symptoms or conditions you want to discuss, how long the problem has lasted, and what problems it is causing you.
  • Be sure to have a list of your current health conditions and any medications you take available.
  • Are there any language or communication barriers that need to be addressed with an interpreter or another caregiver?
  • Check before the appointment to make sure your technology works, if there is a link or service for you to log on to at the appointment time, and that you understand how to connect with your provider.
  • Close extra windows or tabs to make sure the application you are using for your appointment works well.
  • Check to make sure you have a strong internet connection where you intend to take the appointment.
  • Be sure your battery is charged or your device is plugged in before you visit begins.
  • Keep the camera of your phone or computer at eye level during the appointment.
  • Wear loose clothing, or make sure you can get access to whatever part of your body your provider may need to see during the appointment.
  • If you have home monitoring tools like a pulse oximeter or blood pressure cuff, keep those nearby during your appointment.
  • Be ready to share information about your local pharmacy or wherever you want prescriptions to be sent.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions during your appointment. Be honest about your condition.

Will my telehealth visit be covered?

Not every health plan is the same, and coverage can vary—even among some public healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid. The COVID-19 pandemic was useful in one way, though. It motivated health insurers and regulators to open expand coverage for telehealth services that allowed people to get the care they needed during the pandemic while still respecting quarantine and social distancing requirements. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has new guidance on medical billing and coding, as well as reimbursement rules that have led to expanded coverage of telehealth services across the healthcare spectrum. Check with your individual health plan to find out how these changes apply to you. While many of these changes were made as a result of the pandemic, they are likely to stick around longer than COVID.

What Happens During the Visit

Make sure you're prepared before your visit. Find a well-lit area, and be prepared to provide your health information or take notes.

When you schedule your visit with a telehealth provider, you should be given instructions on how to log on, or your will be provided a link to use. Clicking the link or opening at app to begin a telehealth appointment works the same as checking in for an office visit. You should be prepared to begin your appointment at that time. Here's what may happen next.

  • You may be prompted to go through checks of your video and sound connections.
  • Once your connection is confirmed, you will be placed in a virtual waiting room.
  • If you are using a provider who is a part of your health system or who have seen before, they may take some time at this point to review your past medical history.
  • If you are seeing a new provider who doesn't have access to your medical records, they will review the symptoms or problems you described when you made the appointment.
  • The visit should begin with the provider asking questions about the condition that led you to make your telehealth appointment. You will be asked to review all your symptoms, when they started, how long they lasted, and how they are affecting your health and wellbeing.
  • If you have remote monitoring devices, the provider may ask you to use those to provide information like oxygen level, temperature, or blood pressure.
  • Your provider will then examine each body system, walking you through what they want you to do to perform the assessment. You may be asked to cough, breathe deeply, or zoom in on certain physical features or body parts.
  • When the assessment is complete, your provider should discuss a diagnosis with your, and explaining any treatments or follow-up that may be required,
  • At the end of the visit, your provider should issue a summary of their diagnosis and recommendations, as well as a prescription or other treatments that they have recommended,
  • You should also be given instructions on what to do if this treatment doesn't resolve your problems, or what to do if your symptoms get worse.

A Word From Verywell

Telehealth is a different experience that isn't for everyone or every condition.

If you aren't familiar with technology, don't know how to use digital tools, or don't have access to a computer, mobile device, or the internet, you shouldn't hesitate to seek in-person medical care. If you are interested in trying telehealth, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an expansion in what is offered and what insurance companies will cover when it comes to remote care.

Not every condition can be treated virtually. Your provider may be able to make a flu diagnosis through telehealth, but if your symptoms don't get better or become worse, you may need to schedule an in-person visit.

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Article Sources
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