Telehealth 101: How Technology Can Connect You to Healthcare

Telehealth services are widely available and easy to use. Here’s everything you need to know to take advantage of them.

YOU MAY BE HEARING a lot about telehealth these days, as more and more patients have started connecting with their doctors and other healthcare providers through video calls and other remote means. Telehealth services are used by an extensive variety of healthcare providers to improve patient wait times, reduce the need for in-office visits, and even expand office hours. But if you’re still wondering what telehealth involves and how it works, we’re here to help.

The truth is, telehealth services are so widespread and easy to use, you’re probably already taking advantage of them. (If your doctor has ever sent you a message through a secure portal, that’s telehealth!) But if you’re a new user of telehealth services, you may be pleasantly surprised by how these services can help you access quality care.

What Is Telehealth?

Telehealth broadly describes all the ways you can connect with a doctor or other healthcare provider without visiting them in person. The technology used for remote care might be as simple and familiar as video conferencing, smartphone apps or secure portals for sending correspondence to a medical team. It also includes technology used to remotely monitor your health, such as wearable devices that track heart rate or blood sugar levels. All these ways of connecting to medical care are considered telehealth.

Telemedicine is a more specific term that applies to using telecommunications to have an appointment with your provider, such as a video call instead of an in-person visit to urgent care, for example.

When Can I Use Telehealth?

Hint: You probably already are! If your doctor has, for example, sent test results back to you using a secure portal, or you’ve had a session with your therapist by video conference, then you have already used telehealth services.

You can use telehealth to receive care from general practitioners, pediatricians, gynecologists, cardiologists, psychiatrists, therapists, dentists, orthodontists and more. Your doctors can provide urgent care, write prescriptions, conduct follow-up appointments, give you test results and other services. To find out how to take advantage of telehealth, read more in this guide.

What Technology Do I Need?

To make telehealth as accessible as possible, many providers take advantage of technology you may already have. For example, to conduct a video call with a doctor, you need a smartphone, computer or other device with a camera.

Recently, due to the increased use of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic, privacy laws have been relaxed to allow doctors to use FaceTime®, Zoom™ and other popular video platforms to consult with patients.

Providers might also connect with you via a dedicated smartphone app, or through a secure portal that you access via your computer. Your doctor will let you know which app their office is using—and good news, these apps are free for patients!

Telehealth could even include remote patient monitoring, for which you might use simple devices like thermometers or blood glucose meters. Your doctor might provide you with wearable devices, such as a heart rate monitor, for that purpose too.

How Can Telehealth Help Me?

Telehealth services can save you the time and expense of traveling to doctor’s appointments. Those 15 minutes with your doctor require far longer when you factor in commuting to and from the office, not to mention waiting times. That’s a lot of time wasted, and it’s especially inconvenient when you or your child is not feeling well or the visit is a simple post-treatment follow-up or regular check-in. Many specialties, including dermatology, dentistry and more, have introduced telehealth into practices to reduce the time and costs of routine check-ins for patients and the practice alike.

Telehealth makes accessing quality care more convenient. For people with limited mobility or people who live far from their medical providers, telehealth can remove barriers to care.

For patients whose health data can be monitored remotely, telehealth services might mean the difference between having to stay in the hospital or another treatment facility and being able to return home.  Your medical team can remotely monitor blood sugar, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, electrocardiograms and more.

How Do I Get Ready for a Video Call with My Doctor?

Preparing for a remote visit with your doctor or other healthcare provider should only take a few minutes. If you’re going to chat by video call, test out the tech and your internet connection beforehand. Make sure you’re in a well-lit, quiet area where you won’t be interrupted. Be on time, just like you would be for a physical appointment. Have a prepared list of your questions and anything you need from your doctor, such as a prescription refill, and take notes. For more on how to prepare for your appointment quickly and easily, read this guide.

What About Privacy?

Your appointments and information are protected by the same privacy laws that apply when you visit your doctor or medical provider in person. Your doctor’s office might use a secure portal (rather than your normal email address) to exchange information with you. This is for the safety of your personal information. In this article, you can learn more about how telehealth services protect both communications with your doctor and your data.

Is Telehealth Covered by Insurance? What Does It Cost?

Most major health insurance companies offer some form of coverage for telehealth services,  and many of the nation’s large employers  include it as part of their benefits package. Plus, 42 states and the District of Columbia  have laws that govern how private insurers cover telehealth. If the appointment is considered medically necessary, you generally should be able to tap your HSA or FSA  to pay any costs incurred for telehealth services, too. Contact your insurance company to learn the specifics of what your policy covers, then find out from your providers what services they offer and what they cost—it might be less than an in-person visit. To learn more about how telehealth services are covered and what they cost, read more here.

What About Telehealth for Kids?

Telehealth services can help you avoid trips to urgent care or the pediatrician (and skip out on sharing germs in the waiting room, too). Kids today are familiar with video calls, growing up, as they are, in a world that’s always included tablets, laptops, smartphones and video calls to Grandma. Technology isn't a barrier to them—they might even be more relaxed at home, in familiar and comforting surroundings.

Talking your child through the appointment beforehand, and explaining who they’ll see, should go a long toward allaying any fears. For more on how to prepare your kids for a telehealth appointment, this article shares tips and advice from a pediatrician.

Get in touch with your healthcare providers to find out what telehealth services they offer.