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Mom and daughter doing telehealth on a computer

What is Telehealth?

Telehealth is healthcare that is delivered over an audio-visual medium – like a computer screen or a smart phone. Even regular phone calls might be considered telehealth in certain situations. The concept for telehealth has been around for years. Mostly it had been done with psychiatry or behavioral health entities.

Why did it never take off? Many healthcare insurers either wouldn’t pay for it, or made restrictions that made it difficult, if not impossible to do. Also, the technology to do it was clunky and expensive. Few offices and fewer patients could readily participate.

Enter COVID-19. They say necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, telehealth had already been invented, but it was the necessity of staying at home, quarantining, and isolating due to COVID-19 that opened the doors for health insurers and the government to relax their regulations and start paying for telehealth. Also, the technology has really become simplified and inexpensive with many applications being free – yet still secure.

Recently, due to COVID-19, many medical and behavioral health providers are resorting to telehealth as a mechanism to keep you taken care of while you’re in quarantine or practicing social isolation. Some dentists are actually doing the same, though this is not as common.

Some specialties are more conducive to others for using telehealth. You can’t do open-heart surgery via telehealth, but you could talk to your healthcare provider about your congestive heart failure symptoms, including weighing yourself at home and maybe even using a home blood pressure machine if you have one.

If you felt like you needed to show your provider a rash, you could do that with your computer (moderately difficult) or your smart phone (easy). With practice, you might even be able to show your provider your sore throat or swelling of your gums or teeth.

Obviously, with telehealth, your provider can’t do a hands-on physical exam, but it might surprise you how you still might be able to be taken care of.

Something you may not know is that the greatest amount of information a provider needs to make a decision about what needs to be done for your health comes from what you tell your provider – the history you’re able to give about what’s bothering you. Providers typically use the physical exam (as well as labs and x-rays) to confirm what they suspect is going on from the history you gave them.

Does a healthcare provider always need to perform a physical exam? Maybe not. For example, a urinary tract infection might present with pain during urination and lower pelvic discomfort. This is very common in women and may not necessarily need a face-to-face visit (though it might in certain situations).

If you added fever and flank pain to the regular urinary symptoms, then your provider would likely decide you couldn’t do telehealth. Instead, he or she would likely bring you in for a face-to-face (face-to-mask or mask-to-mask) visit.

There may also be cases where you’re able to drop by a clinic and leave a urine sample or get blood drawn in preparation for a telehealth visit later.

So how do you get set up for telehealth? The first thing to do is call your healthcare provider to see if they offer this service. If they do, usually their staff can walk you through the nuances of performing telehealth given what type of telehealth their clinic is using.

Is telehealth going to go away after COVID-19? Nope. It may look a bit differently, and there will likely be more restrictions, but it’s here to stay. It will be part of the new healthcare normal. What can you do? Now is the perfect time to try telehealth with your healthcare provider so that when COVID-19 has blown over, you’ll be familiar with how you can access this type of healthcare.

Telehealth won’t replace face-to-face office visits, but it will be another mechanism to access certain types healthcare in the future.

Dr. Mark Horrocks is the Chief Medical Officer of Health West Inc. Health West offers telehealth for medical, behavioral health, and certain dental visits.


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