There are more than 1,400 cases of the coronavirus in the United States, as of Thursday, and hospitals and clinics are bracing for an influx of patients. To accommodate the surge, the Center for Disease Control is urging hospitals to increase the availability of telehealth and telemedicine services.
Telemedicine is the remote diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. If you're not feeling well, using that kind of service can be smart and inexpensive. Instead of sitting in a waiting room where there might be germs, you can, from your couch, video chat a doctor who can consult on your symptoms.
"I have loved the idea of telemedicine forever," says physician-turned-financial-advisor Carolyn McClanahan, director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. "It's so convenient and it keeps you safe, especially in the reality of communicable diseases. I highly encourage it."
Here's what you need to know about how to get access to telemedicine, and how much it could cost you.
Medical experts say using telemedicine can help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and help with what's called flattening the curve. That's imperative for making patient treatment manageable for hospitals and clinics.
Telehealth also aligns with the containment strategy of social distancing, which calls for minimizing unnecessary contact in public settings. And, if it turns out you have some other minor illness or injury a doctor can diagnose remotely, you're not risking exposure to COVID-19 at a medical facility.
"The key three symptoms so far we've noticed are fever, cough, usually dry, and shortness of breath," says Dr. Davis Liu, chief clinical officer at Lemonaid Health, an online doctor's office. "If someone has those three symptoms, telehealth could be a good place to triage."
If you do need to get tested for COVID-19 or another serious illness, you'll be told to meet with a doctor face-to-face.
If you are insured, your provider might include coverage for telemedicine services, McClanahan says. Insurance companies that are ramping up their services include Anthem, which is gathering more physicians and health professionals to consult patients on their telemedicine tool called LiveHealth Online, according to CNBC.
If you're not insured, things get "a little trickier," McClanahan says.
"If you have a family doctor, I would call that family doctor" to see if they can offer remote consult, she says. If you don't, call your local health department, as they might have resources for those who are uninsured or have a tighter budget right now. Teladoc and Doctors on Demand also offer telemedicine services, and are public companies.
Probably not. Net savings per telemedicine visit ranged from $19 to $121, according to a 2018 report by The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. But the exact cost to you will depend on your insurance and and whether you need additional treatment beyond that video call, like a prescription or blood work. If you are insured, a consultation might be the same price as your regular copay.
Your employer might also offer free or reduced-cost access to telehealth providers as a work benefit, so ask HR before you start chatting with a doctor. In 2019, 72% of companies offered telemedicine or telehealth coverage, up from 23% in 2016, according to a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), which surveyed 2,763 human resources professionals in a variety of fields.
Before you sign up for a telehealth service, check to see if they have the right credentials and are board certified, says Liu, who is also the author of "The Thrifty Patient." They should also be based in the state in which they are licensed to practice medicine.
Liu says video chat is nice to have, and some states require video consultations, but a phone call can also be a viable option. "Especially because a phone call is easily the most reliable technology we have," he says.
McClanahan prefers video. "A doctor can't do a physical exam on the telephone," she says. "At least on video they can see how sick you are. It makes it easier to help guide you."
Overall, Lui says, use your common sense about when to seek medical attention instead of letting your illness play out at home. If you have symptoms that could be COVID-19 or another serious illness like pneumonia or the flu, call a doctor.
"Telemedicine is a good way to tell people where they need to go, or if they need to stay home," he says.
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