How to Use Telehealth Services During the COVID-19 Outbreak and Beyond

If you’ve ever sent a health question to your primary healthcare provider through a patient portal, then you have experienced a type of telehealth. Sometimes called “telemedicine” or “virtual healthcare,” telehealth facilitates care from a distance through electronic information systems.

Telemedicine originally delivered care through the telephone system, such as a Dial-a-Nurse line. Today, telehealth encompasses a broad range of electronic delivery systems that include live video chats, mobile health (also called mhealth) apps, online visits, and secure messaging via text or email.

During the current COVID-19 outbreak, many healthcare providers are discouraging people from traveling to a medical office or urgent care facility unless absolutely necessary, since the novel coronavirus transfers easily from person to person. For mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 or any illness, telehealth services might represent a better, more efficient way to receive initial care.

Person talking to their doctor on teledoc
 Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Who Can Use Virtual Health Services?

Today, almost anyone with a smartphone or laptop computer can access telehealth services. In general, telehealth users fall into one of four categories:

People With Commercial Health Insurance

Many health insurers include telehealth services as a member benefit. You can check with your plan provider to find out if this is the case for you. Members often pay little to nothing for telemedicine services offered through an insurance company.

Insurers often offer multiple types of telehealth services, including online visits (you fill out a form listing your symptoms and receive an email back from a doctor), video visits, and phone consultations. Your insurer may provide a proprietary smartphone app or online interface that you'll need to use in order for the virtual visit to be covered.

Medicare Recipients

Medicare recipients also may be able to access telehealth benefits now. As part of its Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, Congress waived some of the restrictions surrounding the reimbursement of telehealth services for Medicare recipients. This does not ensure that every person on Medicare can receive virtual healthcare as a benefit; among other requirements, a reimbursable telehealth visit must include a video component (as well as audio), and the visit must be conducted by a doctor who has a preexisting relationship with the patient.

If you’re on Medicare, ask your doctor’s office if they will be offering virtual health services under the new guidelines.

If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, consult your plan administrator to find out if your policy includes telehealth benefits.

Medicaid Recipients

Each state sets its own policies regarding types of covered healthcare services under Medicaid. Currently, every state and the District of Columbia cover live video visits for Medicaid recipients. Check with your provider’s office to find out if they offer these types of visits and how to access them.

People Without Health Insurance

Uninsured people also can access telehealth services through a private-pay service. These services generally provide live video visits with a healthcare professional on a cash basis. Both the Google Play store and the Apple App store lists dozens of smartphone apps that can connect you with a doctor, nurse, counselor, or other clinician in seconds—for a fee. Each service sets its own prices, and you should know upfront how much you’ll be paying for a virtual visit.

Some of the best-known, private-pay telehealth providers include:

  • Teladoc
  • Doctor on Demand
  • Amwell
  • MDLive
  • UnityPoint

People who have insurance also can use these private-pay providers to obtain medical care. The cost may not be reimbursable by your insurance plan, and the provider's notes likely will not become part of your medical record on file with your primary care provider or insurance company. Some people like to pay cash specifically to obtain this sort of confidentiality.

When Should You Consider Using Telehealth?

Many less-severe symptoms in adults and children—whether related to COVID-19 or not—can be effectively assessed through an initial telehealth visit. These symptoms and conditions include:

  • Canker sores, cold sores, and other mouth lesions
  • Chickenpox (varicella zoster virus)
  • Conjunctivitis (“pink eye”)
  • Common cold, flu, and allergy symptoms
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Headaches, including migraine
  • Heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Insect bites
  • Minor injuries, such as sprains
  • Painful urination
  • Rashes and other skin conditions
  • Sinus pain and pressure
  • Sore throat

If you think you may have symptoms of COVID-19, you can use our printable Doctor Discussion Guide below to help you prepare for your virtual appointment.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

Sometimes the healthcare professional conducting the virtual visit can diagnose and treat the condition based on their interview with you and the visual signs of your illness. Many times, however, a virtual visit becomes a triage tool that enables the healthcare provider to direct you to a particular course of action:

  • Come into the office
  • Head to an urgent care center
  • Go to an emergency room
  • Proceed to an outpatient X-ray facility or laboratory

When it comes to COVID-19, telehealth offers a way for your doctor to evaluate your symptoms without potentially exposing a waiting room full of people to the virus. If your practitioner suspects you may be infected with the novel coronavirus, he or she can direct you to a testing facility and provide instructions for follow-up care.

Specific to COVID-19, people in a high-risk group (immunocompromised, elderly, or pregnant) should skip the virtual visit and phone their doctor’s office for instructions on how to proceed if they develop a fever, cough, and shortness of breath—the three classic signs of an infection with COVID-19.

Even people considered low-risk should call for emergency medical assistance if they believe they might be infected with the novel coronavirus and also exhibit these additional symptoms:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Confusion, delirium, or difficulty arousing the person from sleep
  • Severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Turning blue around the lips

Beyond COVID-19, any person experiencing serious or potentially life-threatening symptoms should call 911 for emergency medical assistance rather than try to utilize telehealth. A few such signs and symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or other signs of a heart attack
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • One-sided weakness, facial drooping, or other signs of stroke
  • Suspected broken bones
  • Unexplained change in mental status, such as fainting or becoming delirious

Feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Telehealth can also provide the ability to help you care for your mental health while at home. Learn about the best online therapy options available to you.

Can Prescriptions Be Refilled by Telehealth?

Depending on the situation and state prescribing laws, a healthcare provider may be able to issue new prescriptions or refill existing ones during a virtual visit. Not all types of drugs will be eligible for this service, even if your provider offers it. A few medications you likely cannot obtain through telehealth services include:

  • Certain psychiatric medications
  • Chemotherapy agents
  • Narcotic pain relievers

However, you may be able to obtain new prescriptions or refills of other types of medications during a virtual visit. A few examples include:

  • Allergy pills
  • Antacids
  • Antibiotics
  • Eye drops for treating conditions like conjunctivitis
  • Medicated shampoos
  • Non-narcotic pain relievers
  • Skin creams and lotions

If you feel concerned about visiting your provider’s office for routine prescription refills during the COVID-19 outbreak, contact the office to find out if you might obtain these refills using telehealth.

A Word From Verywell

Although the COVID-19 outbreak may be driving the mass adoption of telehealth and virtual visits today, the accessibility of telemedicine makes it a convenient option to use all the time for mild to moderate symptoms. Why take a half-day off work to drive to a doctor’s clinic and sit in a waiting room full of sniffling patients when you can simply dial up a doctor on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop to receive care in the comfort of your own home or office?

Because of its convenience, accessibility, and—for many people—affordability, telehealth may well represent the future of healthcare delivery for adults and children in the post-coronavirus world.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms & testing. Updated May 13, 2020.

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