Since social distancing is now part of our “new normal,” it’s no surprise that virtual medical appointments have become quite popular.
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While virtual visits aren’t the answer to every medical problem, you might be surprised to learn that many conditions can be managed effectively from the comfort of your couch.
“Virtual visits allow us to address patients’ health concerns, safely and effectively. They’re especially important in this time of COVID-19,” says family medicine doctor Mark Rood, MD.
Never done a virtual visit? Dr. Rood explains how they work and what to expect.
Which medical conditions are suitable for virtual visits?
Getting examined by your healthcare provider via video chat is especially important if you’re experiencing milder symptoms of COVID-19. Staying home with your symptoms is the best way to avoid spreading the illness to healthcare providers or other patients. If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, dry cough and a fever, it’s best to seek in-person medical care.
Online, doctors are having consults with patients that cover a number of common illnesses and injuries. “We can treat lots of problems virtually,” says Dr. Rood.
These conditions include:
- Cold and flu.
- Aches and pains.
- Minor musculoskeletal injuries.
- Infections such as pink eye or strep throat.
- Uncomplicated urinary tract infections. (Believe it or not!)
“We’ve also had patients call with overwhelming stress and anxiety as a result of the pandemic,” he adds. “We can help them work through those emotions and connect them to options for ongoing care.”
What to expect during a virtual doctor’s appointment
During your virtual appointment, your healthcare provider will ask about your concerns and symptoms. They might do a visual exam, and look you over for rashes or other physical abnormalities. Sometimes, your provider may recommend that you make an appointment for an in-person test or exam. But in many cases, virtual visits are all you need to address less pressing health concerns.
Managing chronic illness with telehealth
Patients who are managing ongoing health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis can also benefit from telemedicine. “We can help our patients monitor their chronic conditions remotely,” Dr. Rood says.
You can even buy devices to use at home to measure heart rate, blood pressure and weight. The devices automatically upload the data to your medical chart for your doctor to review. “Technology has really advanced in the past two or three years to allow us to do things we’ve never done before,” Dr. Rood says.
And even if you don’t spring for such a device, your healthcare provider may be able to monitor your symptoms or adjust your medication without an in-person visit. “It’s worth talking to your primary care doctor or specialist to see if they can perform a virtual visit,” Dr. Rood says.
How to get started with virtual visits
OK, sounds great — but how do you get started? It’s easier than ever, says Dr. Rood. During the pandemic, the U.S. government has loosened restrictions on virtual visits. You can now access care through:
- Commercial video chat platforms.
- Telephone, if you can’t establish a video connection with your doctor.
Virtual visits can be done with a computer or tablet. But it’s usually easiest to use a smartphone if you have one, Dr. Rood says:
- Download a free app (like Cleveland Clinic’s Express Care® Online app). These platforms are designed to be user-friendly. “It’s very straightforward,” he says. “And if you need help, most physicians’ offices will talk you through the setup over the phone.”
- Get the app up and running and fill out any pre-visit questionnaires before your scheduled appointment, he suggests. That way, you can spend your virtual visit addressing your medical concerns.
Additional tips for making virtual visits successful
Virtual visits don’t have to be cold or chaotic. There are a few things you can do to ensure that they go as smoothly as possible. Here are some helpful tips from family medicine specialist Neha Vyas, MD.
- Make sure you’re available before your virtual appointment to answer any questions that your provider’s assistant might have. In some cases, your provider’s office might call between 15-20 minutes before your appointment or they might call the day before. The assistant might ask about the dosage of your medications, how often you’re taking them and whether you’ve had any recent tests or lab work done. Basically, you’ll be asked the same questions you’re asked during a routine in-person checkup. Also, be sure to have your medications nearby so you can refer to them. Having the most up-to-date information is critical to your health.
- During your virtual visit, place your phone, tablet or computer on a level surface instead of holding it while speaking to your provider. Make sure your provider can see your face and your upper chest. Unless you’re really feeling poorly, try to stay upright and seated during your visit and don’t move from one room to another. This will allow the provider to evaluate you the same way as they do in the office. When you are speaking, your doctor or specialist will examine the way your chest moves and if your facial muscles are moving synchronously.
- Similar to taking photos, make sure that the light source in the room is to the side or above and not behind you. It’s difficult to see patients when they are sitting in front of a window with the shades open. Also, make sure that your camera screen is free from dirt for the best possible visual inspection.
- Be sure to have paper and a pen with you so you can take notes during the visit. It’s also helpful to have a penlight or a flashlight on-hand so that you can spotlight areas on your body where you may have a rash or injury. Or, you can take a picture of the affected area and ask the assistant how to send it to your medical provider.
- Avoid having virtual visits in a room with background noise, such as in a kitchen, or with a pet nearby. If possible, have someone else care for young children or animals in another room so you and your provider can focus on your visit.
- If they’re not in the room to assist or provide additional information for your virtual visit, ask guests or family members to wait in another room until your appointment is over. Since sensitive information will be discussed during your visit, this can help protect your privacy.
- Keep in mind that the audio may be delayed on your end or your provider’s. This can cause the flow of your conversation to be a little bit slower. Use shorter sentences and allow more pauses in the conversation so that your medical provider doesn’t miss anything you say.