But with the pandemic forcing a nationwide shutdown, telemedicine became a necessary tool for doctors and patients.
A survey by Sage Growth Partner (SGP) and Black Book Market Research, found that 25% of consumer respondents had used telehealth prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic, with 59% reporting they are more likely to use telehealth services now than previously and 33% who would even leave their current physician for a provider who offered telehealth access.
Telehealth visits, including for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are projected to climb to 1 billion by the end of 2020, according to Forrester Research.
Claims data from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas shows a nearly tenfold jump in telemedicine visits between early February and mid-April — going from more than 20,000 visits to a peak of more than 170,000 as patients sought to reduce their potential risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
While the health care industry continues to learn from the pandemic, we know with some certainty that telemedicine is a health care delivery option that is here to stay, even as people feel more comfortable scheduling office visits.
As a patient, knowing how to get the most out of telemedicine is important. Here are some tips to help make your visit a productive one for both you and your doctor:
- Call your health insurer. Doing this in advance can help you prevent surprise bills and understand your coverage and copays, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many health insurers, like BCBSTX, expanded their coverage and waived cost-sharing for telemedicine visits on a temporary basis in response to the pandemic, a call before your appointment will help you to know what’s covered, what’s not and for how long.
- Before the visit. Find a quiet, private space for your visit, with as few distractions or interruptions as possible. Make sure your provider can clearly see and hear you. If possible, use headphones. And make sure the device you will use — whether it’s a smartphone or computer — is working properly.
- Be Prepared. One way to stay on track during a telemedicine visit is to make a list to things you want to discuss. A specific list of questions to ask during the visit will help keep you focused. If offered, sign up for your provider’s secure online patient portal to review your medical record so you can discuss prior test results and conditions.
- Know your symptoms. If your visit is for a specific medical reason, be prepared to discuss what’s troubling you so your provider can know whether your condition is an emergency or something that can be treated at home. If your visit is related to COVID-19, let your provider know how long you have experienced symptoms and what they are. The CDC’s list of symptoms includes fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, headache and new loss of taste or smell, among others.
- Medications. It’s important to list your medications, dosage and if it’s time for refill. For instance, if you are diabetic, monitor your blood sugar. Reviewing blood sugar numbers that have been recorded at different times of day can allow your provider to adjust your medication without an office visit.
- Pre-existing conditions. If your visit is with a provider who is unfamiliar with your medical history, be prepared to talk about any pre-existing conditions — like high blood pressure, respiratory or pulmonary issues, congestive heart failure, diabetes, obesity or high cholesterol — so the provider can get a complete picture of your health.
- Next steps. Finally, when your visit is completed, remember to ask your provider about any recommendations, plans for follow-up or in-office visits.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge, but people in the health industry — payers and providers — are doing all they can to protect their members and patients. Allowing patients to consult with doctors through telemedicine can be a great way to ensure they get care while avoiding the risk of spreading infection.
And telemedicine can be especially beneficial for patients with underlying medical conditions who may be at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 and who need to stay home as much as possible, including avoiding the doctor’s office.
As the health care industry adapts to our new environment, experts predict telemedicine will be an essential tool of the future, rather than reverting to the little-used tool of the past. Policymakers should refrain from intervention that will inevitably limit innovation.