You probably know the feeling. You don’t think it’s an emergency, but you do feel sick enough to see a doctor. Still, getting there can be a problem if you don’t drive, don’t feel well enough to or are reluctant to venture out on an icy road—and just the thought of getting dressed requires more energy than you can muster. Then there’s the wait. Sitting for even a half-hour in a doctor’s office or urgent care waiting room filled with sneezing, coughing, germ-laden patients is not an option. Top that with getting sick on a weekend or holiday when even getting a call-back from your doctor is a small miracle.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, you think, as you crawl back into bed, if doctors still made house calls?
They do—virtually, via a secure online connection to your smartphone, tablet or computer. And there may be only a 10-minute or less wait time to “see” the doctor. That is especially appealing given that the average wait time in a major city for a non-urgent problem like a bout of poison ivy is five days to two months.
Telehealth or telemedicine as it’s also called—video calling with doctors, email and text messaging, even Facebook messaging—is becoming the next big thing. In fact, one telehealth company, Teladoc, already has 15 million members.
Your Virtual House Call: How It Works
Telehealth is not meant to replace your personal physician, but rather offers a convenient, 24/7 consultation about a non-emergency health problem with a doctor who is licensed to practice in your state.
Signing up for most telehealth services is as simple as going online, filling out contact information and, if you want to have your doc visit via your mobile device, downloading an app. You can set up an appointment or have a video appointment with a healthcare professional right away. Some services also will communicate with you via email or phone.
Once you’ve scheduled a visit, depending on your issue (for example, if you’re “seeing” a dermatologist), you might be asked to take pictures of yourself and upload them to the website or app. If you use a smartphone or tablet, it’s an easy two-step process.
Why You Might Use Telehealth
You would use a virtual health service for a non-emergency situation, such as a sore throat, cold or flu, diarrhea, sports injury, a distressing rash or other skin issue, symptoms of a sinus or urinary tract infection—even a mental health issue. The online doctor evaluates your condition and gives you medical advice and instructions for self-care. The doctor can also recommend over-the-counter medication or email a prescription to your local pharmacy; some will make a specialist referral.
In the not distant future, Medicare may cover telehealth services for people with certain chronic conditions that need regular follow-up.
In addition to primary care for minor health complaints, several telehealth services now include behavioral health counselors, including psychiatrists, for treating people with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Some also offer consultations with a specialist, nutritional counseling for those with diabetes or other chronic illnesses, and orders for diagnostic testing.
Depending on the service, you might be able to choose a doctor on the company’s roster. Others assign you to a physician, specialist or counselor depending on your needs. All healthcare professionals you’ll see are board certified and state-licensed.
The cost of a visit typically runs from $35 to $50, possibly more, depending on consultation time. Some services also charge a monthly subscription fee.
Some insurance company plans—for example, United Health Care, Cigna and Aetna, including some ACA marketplace plans—may cover the cost. More and more companies are including telehealth services in their benefit plans.
Some 49 state Medicaid programs will reimburse for telehealth video visits.
How about Medicare? Original Medicare only covers telehealth for seniors living in remote rural areas, but some Medicare Advantage plans—as many as 72 according to this source, most notably Anthem and Humana plans—cover telehealth for seniors in some cases. And Medicare is the next major area for growth, Modern Healthcare reports. Already, Medicare pilot programs are underway in some states, among them programs that are evaluating telehealth for chronic conditions common to seniors.
If you have a Medicare supplemental plan, ask about coverage and deductibles for telehealth visits. You insurer may be partnered with a virtual health care service or cover the cost of a visit.
Here’s a sampling of telehealth services currently available. All allow you to see the doctor via a computer or mobile app.
5 Top Telehealth Providers
Who you can see: A national network of over 3,000 health care providers, including physicians, psychologists, clinical social workers, and marriage and family therapists
What you’ll pay: Typically $40 or less per visit.
Services: Urgent care, behavioral health counseling, sexual health consultation, dermatology.
Who you can see:Primary care physicians and psychologists
What you’ll pay: $25 to $100 per month , depending on which of three levels of service you choose, plus a per-visit fee
Services: Urgent care. If the doctor thinks you should see a specialist, they’ll provides a referral to one of more than 100 specialists.
Who you can see: Physicians, including primary care, psychiatrists, psychologists and nutritionists.
What you’ll pay: $49 or less for urgent care; $79-$95 for an online therapy session; $200 for an initial visit with a psychiatrist
Services: Urgent care, online therapy, online psychiatry, nutritional counseling
Who you can see: Primary-care physicians and specialists, such as psychiatrists with 15 years of practice experience on average, psychologists and masters-level behavioral health therapists
What you’ll pay: $49 or same as your co-pay per visit, no monthly fees
Services: Urgent care, behavioral therapy and counseling, and psychiatry
Who you can see: Board-certified physicians, including primary care and pediatricians, psychiatrists and psychologists, dermatologists,
What you’ll pay: $49 per visit with MD: $79 per 25-minute psychologist session, $119 per 50 minute session; $229 for first visit with a psychiatrist and $99 for follow-up visit. Video visits may be covered by your health insurance.
Services: Primary care, mental health counseling, smoking cessation
Other, smaller services include:
A 2016 survey showed that almost 60% of people age 55 to 70 would use telehealth. Would you see a virtual doctor?