Make the most of telemedicine

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Doctor with stethoscope
Valley News - Health

When health issues crop up, people often have to decide where best to seek medical attention, with urgent care and the emergency room being potential destinations. But for more and more Californians, their smartphone is now the preferred way to see and talk to a doctor.

Telemedicine visits, also known as virtual care, typically last less than 20 minutes, often cost less than $50 and enable people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smartphone, tablet or personal computer to help diagnose and treat certain medical conditions. While nearly 40% of Americans said they are interested in using telemedicine in the future to access care, a separate J.D. Power survey found nationwide telehealth adoption is currently as low as 10%.

Closing this gap by expanding the use of virtual care may prove beneficial, as this technology can provide consumers improved convenience and lower costs. In fact, 68% of patients rated their telemedicine visit a “9” or “10” on a 10-point satisfaction scale; 74% had their care concern resolved during the first visit and net savings per virtual visit exceeded $120.

To help people take advantage of this emerging technology, here are four tips to consider.

Identify available resources. Among people who had not used telemedicine, the J.D. Power survey found that 37% said they did not know if they had access to this technology. To find telemedicine resources that may be available to, patients should check with their hospital or care provider group, health insurance plan or employer. In fact, nearly nine out of 10 employers offer telemedicine services to their employees, while 76% of U.S. hospitals already connect patients and care providers using video or other technology. For Medicare beneficiaries, some Medicare Advantage plans are offering coverage for telemedicine and resources to access virtual care, in some cases at no out-of-pocket cost.

Understand appropriate uses. While telemedicine may have the potential to help treat other health issues, the technology is most widely used to address minor and nonemergency medical conditions, including allergies, flu, pinkeye and rashes. Telemedicine is also emerging as a helpful resource for behavioral health services, making it more convenient for people to access this type of care. If needed, doctors can prescribe medications and send prescriptions to local pharmacies for pickup. While people who experience a significant or serious medical issue should go to the emergency room, it is important to recognize that about 25% of ER visits typically involve conditions that could appropriately be addressed with a virtual visit.

Keep seeing a primary care physician. Telemedicine may be ideal for treating minor and nonemergency medical issues, but it is important for people to maintain a relationship with a primary care physician for wellness checkups, diagnostics, management of long-term conditions and some urgent and non-urgent treatments. As telemedicine programs evolve, people may have the option to use virtual visits to access primary care and maintain an on-going relationship with their preferred doctor.

Use other connected devices. Consumers can consider other connected devices to help access care and potentially improve their health, ranging from smartwatches and activity trackers to continuous blood glucose monitors and connected asthma inhalers. These connected devices – and others like them – may provide important real-time information and offer people actionable feedback about their behavior patterns, while helping make it possible for care providers to counsel patients to more effectively follow recommended treatments.

Making telemedicine more widely available – and used – may be especially important for people with chronic conditions and the 20% of the U.S. population that lives in rural areas where access to health care, particularly specialty care, is often lacking. By considering these tips, people may make the most of telemedicine resources as part of their journey toward managing their health.

Dr. John Chang is the senior medical director of UnitedHealthcare of California.