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What to know before trying out virtual care

By: Dr. Thomas Biuso
February 9, 2018 Updated: February 9, 2018 at 4:25 am
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We're all stretched thinner than ever due to our jobs, school events, housework, child care and errands - and many of us feel we have little time to take care of ourselves.

In our precious downtime, nearly 80 percent of us rely on a smartphone to stay connected to news, services and each other. A recent survey by UnitedHealthcare shows that nearly 30 percent of Americans use the Internet or mobile apps as our first source for information about their health conditions. In fact, you might have noticed a growing number of apps that enable you to receive medical care virtually. Virtual care, also known as remote care, telehealth, telemedicine or online visits, is medical care that's delivered using technology rather than through an in-person consultation.

Research has found that 77 percent of consumers are open to the idea of replacing an in-person doctor visit with a virtual one. Yet fewer than 20 percent of people have tried virtual visits. To see if virtual care a good choice for you, here are some tips before you get started:

- Check your benefits: Some health plans offer virtual visits as a benefit, through physicians in their local care provider networks and/or through a national online service. Independent telehealth services and apps outside your health plan may also be available.

- You've probably used the technology: Virtual visits are as easy as FaceTime or Skype. You'll need a smartphone, tablet or computer with video and audio capabilities. Via an online connection that uses special security to protect your privacy, a doctor, physician assistant or other clinician sees and hears your concerns and symptoms, and prescribes treatment or any follow-up if needed. A virtual visit can take place anywhere you have Wi-Fi or data access, at your convenience, and in many cases 24/7.

- Use virtual visits for the right things: Virtual visits are for non-emergency, minor medical conditions. They can be a huge time-saver for people who suspect they have a bladder or urinary tract infection, a respiratory or sinus infection, a rash, stomachache or diarrhea, or a migraine headache. Some care providers offer telehealth visits for ongoing help for chronic conditions or behavioral health issues.

- Know when a virtual visit won't do: In an emergency, call 911 or go to an emergency room. Virtual visits aren't appropriate for a hands-on physical exam or treatment, or for certain tests or X-rays.

- Understand the cost: Virtual visits through your health plan usually cost the same or less than an in-person doctor visit. Independent telehealth services usually charge $50 to $75 per visit. In any case, your cost for virtual visits is usually lower compared to urgent care and emergency room visits.

Virtual visits covered by your health plan might count toward your annual deductible and out-of-pocket maximum, just like in-office visits.

- Talk with your doc before and after: To understand whether virtual care is a good option for you and your family, discuss it with your doctor. If you opt for a telehealth visit, ask the virtual care provider to send a summary of your visit to your primary care physician so your medical record is complete and your doctor can follow up with you appropriately.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) pointed out that a virtual visit saves 106 minutes on average, compared to an in-person appointment. Tapping an app could give back more than an hour of your day.

Best of all, virtual visits can help you access the care you need, when you need it. Whether that means your cough is nothing serious or starting your treatment sooner when pinkeye appears on a Saturday night, virtual care might be just what the doctor ordered.

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Dr. Thomas Biuso is Chief Medical Director, West Region, UnitedHealthcare.

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