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Telemedicine

Advances in technology are making health care delivery easier and more efficient. Electronic medical records are replacing paper charts. Digital devices can check things like blood sugar in people with diabetes and do many other health-related tasks.

And thanks to telemedicine, parents and patients can visit with a health care provider almost anytime, day or night.

What Is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine lets health care providers examine, diagnose, and treat patients using technology like a phone, computer, or other device.

For some illnesses, you can schedule an appointment and video-chat with your child's doctor right from your home computer, tablet, or smartphone. No waiting rooms. No long drives. No getting a sitter to watch your other kids. This saves everyone time and money.

Telemedicine lets families:

  • Reach a provider, day or night, via your device. In many areas, parents can schedule a video-chat appointment with a doctor or other health care provider for a face-to-face visit. Many aspects of care lend themselves to these "virtual visits," such as:
    • diagnosing common viruses like colds and flu, infections, pinkeye, rashes, allergies, and mental health problems like anxiety or depression
    • doing routine follow-up visits for things like surgery or illnesses
    • providing education, such as explaining how to use an inhaler or how to toilet teach a toddler
  • Share health data via digital devices. Phone apps, digital watches, and other wearable devices now record health data, such as blood-glucose readings for kids with diabetes. This information can be sent to a computer system in your doctor's office or hospital so that health care professionals can keep track of your child's health.
  • Send X-rays, ultrasound images, or photos from one location to another. This lets doctors securely share the actual pictures, rather than just reading a radiologist's report or a description of a rash.
  • Improve access to specialists and specialized technologies. By using telemedicine, doctors in remote areas or small hospitals can reach a specialist at a larger hospital and have access to that hospital's technology. For example, a community hospital patient with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee could have a virtual visit with an orthopedic surgeon in a hospital miles away. The surgeon can review the MRI scans or other images via telemedicine and diagnose the patient with technology not available at the community hospital.

What Are the Limitations of Telemedicine?

Telemedicine isn't meant to replace traditional health care, but to support it. And it does have its limitations.

Critics of telemedicine worry that there will be a breakdown of continuity of care — meaning that families will stop seeing their regular doctors if the doctors don't provide virtual visits, and choose whoever is available. That doctor may be less informed about a child's medical history.

Others worry that many health problems can't be diagnosed through telemedicine. Anything requiring a physical exam — like pressing on the belly to feel for a mass in a patient complaining of belly pain — would need to be done in person.

New tools let nurses or medical assistants use an instrument on a patient like a stethoscope (to listen to the heart) — and connect it to a smartphone so that a doctor at another location can participate in a physical exam. But these tools aren't yet widely available.

Finally, while many health insurances (including some Medicaid programs) cover telemedicine services, others don't.

How Can I Set Up a Virtual Visit?

Many doctor's offices and health care systems already provide virtual visits to their families. Ask your health care provider if this service is offered.

These steps can help you make the most of your visit, and avoid some of the challenges that can come with anything new:

  1. Find out if visits are covered. Call your health insurance provider and ask if virtual visits are covered. If not, you may be paying out-of-pocket for any visit you have.
  2. Ask your doctor's office if they charge extra for virtual visits or a "convenience fee." Some health care systems will charge a fee for the convenience of a virtual visit on top of what they bill you or your insurance company for.
  3. Download the software. Most doctor's offices and health systems have software that they use to communicate with their patients. This software must be downloaded onto your computer, tablet, or phone to talk to your doctor or have a virtual visit. You can often schedule visits using this technology. These systems are safe and secure, and handle patient information according to the guidelines set out by the government's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Communicating with your doctor using other means, such as text, email, or uncensored video-chatting apps, are risky and can compromise your family's health information.
  4. Find out where your family's records are going. If you have a virtual visit with your child's primary care provider (PCP), all the details of the visit will be included in your child's medical record. But if your visit is with a new provider, ask how that information will be shared with your child's PCP. If there's no system set up to alert the PCP about the visit, it's up to you to contact your child's doctor and share the details of the visit so that it can be filed in the medical record.
Date reviewed: August 2016