When you’re taking your loved one to the doctor for something like an annual check-up or an X-ray, there’s value in heading across town and sitting down to wait for an in-person appointment. But whenever my grandmother would have a minor symptom like an unusual mole, we’d take her to the doctor’s office for an appointment that would only last a few minutes—long enough for the doctor to say that she had nothing to be concerned about, and send us home. It seems like if we could have just sent a quick photo over to the doctor for a look, everyone could have been spared an enormous amount of time and stress and worry. With the advent of telehealth technology, now that is possible.
This new technology is often referred to as “telemedicine”; it’s a pretty broad term, but essentially it’s live video appointments that connect licensed doctors to patients for a consultation on non-emergency health problems, such as sinus issues, cold symptoms, dermatology questions, and more. Patients can access these services through the Internet, or on their phone or tablet with mobile apps. Virtual services do not replace the patient’s relationship with their primary healthcare provider, and they won’t be visiting the same doctor each time. It just serves as a backup offering 24/7/365 healthcare support in case they need it—which can be especially advantageous to older adults aging at home, and to the caregivers who would normally be taking them to and from doctor’s appointments. So, which kinds of health issues can be “telehealth-ed”?
When—and Where—to Use Telemedicine
Telehealth is clearly advantageous for those with limited mobility or access to transportation—like aging adults living at home. It has also gained traction in rural areas where specialists might not be available for an in-person consultation. The growing popularity of telemedicine in rural areas could be explained, in part, by the fact that a patient’s insurance is generally more likely to cover telehealth services if they live outside the city limits.
To decide “when” to use telemedicine, take into consideration the severity of your loved one’s symptoms. Usually minor issues can be treated through a virtual appointment. Some health care issues that are often handled virtually include:
- Sinus infections
- Sore throat
- Dermatology questions, like rashes or unusual moles
- Mental health issues—usually anxiety and depression
Essentially, if it’s the type of issue where your loved one’s symptoms are easy to describe or photograph, it’s likely possible to ask a telehealth doctor about it and get a helpful response. Caregivers will appreciate knowing that their loved one has 24/7 healthcare support for these smaller issues, and this service can eliminate the hassle of transportation to multiple appointments. An added benefit is that by taking care of minor issues like cold symptoms or dermatology questions through a quick, easy telehealth appointment, your loved one’s overall healthcare costs will likely dip, since you’ll be avoiding the cost of the traditional office visit.
How to Access Telehealth Services
So, how can the average patient access these services—do they need a special kind of computer or medical device? Well, for the most part, no. Telehealth services are usually app-based, and operate through a phone or tablet. Teladoc and MDLive are two major platforms, and they both offer services across a variety of devices, including smartphone app, web browser, and telephone. They’re also partnering with the private sector to make telehealth accessible to consumers: Walgreens Connect recently expanded their mobile app to offer MDLive’s capabilities to users in a total of 25 states. However, the platform your loved one decides to use for telehealth will likely be determined by their insurance coverage.
Many providers have partnered with individual providers and offer coverage for a specific platform. For example, BCBS of Tennessee offers virtual visits via their app, PhysicianNow by MDLive, while Aetna partners with Teladoc. On the other hand, BCBS California partners with Adventist providers to offer telehealth services conducted through a “cart.” The “cart” is a device that almost looks like a robot-doctor, with diagnostic scopes, adjustable monitors with sound and live video, and a high-definition camera to send images. With these types of visits, ‘physician service’ provides the equipment, much like a real doctor’s office, but the visit takes place at a designated location. With the app-based services, the only equipment your loved one will need is an Internet-enabled device or telephone.
Of course, telemedicine is still a very new field, so healthcare insurers and providers are still working to effectively integrate telehealth into our existing infrastructure for care, so you’ll need to speak with your loved one’s insurance benefits manager and doctor to see which options are available to them.
Finding Coverage: Insurers Embrace Telemedicine as Practical for Cost, Convenience
Implementing telehealth into your loved one’s care routine is largely going to be determined by which services their insurance offers, so you’ll want to look into the options. Fortunately, more and more companies are offering telemedical services. 29 US States as well as the District of Columbia mandate that private insurance companies cover telemedicine the same as they do in-person care, according to the American Telemedicine Association, and more states are predicted to join the ranks. However, the guidelines vary widely on what counts as “telemedicine.” Is an email telemedicine? What about a phone call? Does it matter where the call is conducted? There is still some ambiguity within the field, which means patients will have to be in contact with their benefits manager and healthcare provider to see if the services they want are actually going to be covered by their insurance.
The good new is, there’s not a lot of opposition from the private insurance companies to rolling out broader telemedicine coverage:
- Aetna began offering telemedicine services for non-urgent care through Teladoc in 2011
- Cigna also began offering these services in 2014 through MDLive
- Even companies that were hesitant about the new technology at first, like Blue Cross Blue Shield, have expanded their services; now many of their offerings, like WellPoint affiliated plans, cover a variety of telemedicine services
If your loved one is interested in using virtual medical services to supplement their usual care routine, you can help them investigate the options in their individual state and decide what makes sense. Insurance coverage is expanding for telemedicine all the time, making it more accessible than ever.
Telemedicine Facilitates Aging in Place
While telemedicine may be quite a bit more involved than just sending a photo over to a doctor, it’s one solution that can make healthcare more accessible than ever—and getting the latest telemedicine platform can be as convenient as downloading an app from the app store. Essentially, this all means that our aging population is going to have greater access to telehealth services in the coming years, which can make it easier to live in their own home. Telemedicine offers a bright future for caregivers, who can feel confident that their loved one has consistent access to healthcare consultations, and for older adults, who will be less burdened by attending face-to-face appointments for minor issues.
At IOA, we’re committed to connecting older adults and caregivers to the resources they need. If you’d like more information about accessing telemedicine services, feel free to contact us for information and support.