COVID-19 made a huge impact worldwide that will perhaps be felt for decades. But out of that chaotic time, we took some positive steps when it comes to improving access to quality healthcare. What was once considered a mandatory tool to reduce the spread of infection, virtual visits and telemedicine consultations are here to stay as an option that’s available for all individuals interested in receiving care for their mental and physical health without having to leave their home and come into an office.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
“People are thrilled they have this ability to access healthcare,” says family medicine doctor Mark Rood, MD. “We can use virtual appointments as a conduit to get people into a brick-and-mortar center for primary care and specialty care, or we can develop a pure virtual relationship to allow for faster access to care than perhaps they might have if they were to try and get an appointment in the office.”
For people who are immunocompromised, live farther than they’d like from a hospital setting or for people who have difficulty leaving their homes, virtual appointments can be lifesaving alternatives. And in particular, more and more people are using virtual appointments in place of in-person therapy and general primary care as a means of improving and maintaining their physical and mental health.
“People often assume that to get their mental healthcare needs met, they need to start with a psychiatrist, or psychologist, but primary care physicians are often the first point of contact for people with a mental health condition,” clarifies Dr. Rood.
“Being able to see someone in the comfort of their own home, with or without the support of their family around them, is an advantage that we are also provided in the virtual space that we aren’t provided in an in-person setting.”
If you’ve never had a virtual appointment or wonder how they’ve changed since they were first offered during the pandemic, we’ve got you covered. Dr. Rood provides some tips for making the most out of your virtual appointments and an explainer on what you can expect.
Virtual care vs. telehealth vs. telemedicine
Early on, these terms were used to identify different uses of digital technology within the medical field. Now, they’re used interchangeably to describe the use of digital technology to deliver and improve access to healthcare for anyone who needs it.
Most insurance companies cover at least some form of virtual healthcare or telehealth services, and may require a copayment for each visit. You can also schedule a virtual appointment with any healthcare provider at any institution who performs virtual visits, as long as they have a medical license for the state in which you’re in at the time of your appointment.
“Virtual visits are often the most cost-effective way to receive care,” says Dr. Rood. “We can treat lots of nonemergency problems virtually.”
Online, caregivers can provide consultation to people who have a number of express care concerns and injuries. These conditions include:
- Cold and flu.
- Sleep apnea and other sleep-related issues.
- Aches and pains.
- Minor musculoskeletal injuries.
- Infections such as pink eye or strep throat.
- Uncomplicated urinary tract infections.
They’re also able to provide consultations for any common primary care chronic conditions or mental health conditions, including:
- Back pain.
- Mood disorders like bipolar disorder.
- Personality disorders like schizophrenia.
What to expect
For virtual visits, you’ll need to have access to the internet and a computer, tablet or smartphone. In some cases, healthcare providers might allow the option of using the telephone without video for your appointments, but most virtual appointments use video in some way.
The reason for this is because your healthcare provider may want to do a visual exam and look you over for rashes or other physical abnormalities. Sometimes, your provider may recommend that you make a follow-up appointment for an in-person test or exam, like getting your blood drawn, getting a sleep study or having a strep test, but this happens only when it’s most necessary. In most cases, for general, nonemergency primary care, a majority of virtual visits can be held entirely on the phone or through a smart device.
Before your virtual appointment, you’ll want to:
- Download a free app (like the MyClevelandClinic® app). These platforms are designed to be user-friendly. “It’s very straightforward,” reassures Dr. Rood. “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. That way, you can spend your virtual visit addressing your medical concerns.
Depending on where you’re receiving care, each individual institution may have their own app with varying features. But the general idea is to improve your user experience and minimize the sometimes-complicated process of getting medical attention and treatment.
“We’re not constrained by needing a physical space, we’re not constrained by the time it takes for a medical assistant to check you in, and there’s no travel time and no traditional waiting room with virtual visits,” says Dr. Rood
Companion apps like MyChart also offer a secure means of accessing your medical record. You can use these apps to keep track of your appointments and access test results, visit summaries and commonly asked questions.
You can also use these apps to send messages back and forth with your healthcare provider for any last-minute questions you have, to request refills on prescriptions and to schedule future appointments. This is especially helpful for people who are managing ongoing, chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis and need healthcare providers to monitor their symptoms or adjust their medication without ever having an in-person visit. And while there may be a nominal charge for this type of care, it’s relatively inexpensive when compared to 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 encourages. “We can help our patients monitor their chronic conditions remotely.”
And between visits, you can even buy devices to use at home to measure your heart rate, blood pressure and weight. Some smart devices automatically upload the data to your medical chart for your provider to review, making that process even more manageable.
“Technology has really advanced in the past two or three years to allow us to do things we’ve never done before,” Dr. Rood notes.
Tips to make your virtual appointment go well
Just because you’re meeting with your healthcare provider over the screen doesn’t mean it has to be quick, cold or chaotic. Healthcare providers who offer virtual visits are able to give the same level of quality care you would receive if you were to come into an office in-person.
Plus, there are a few things you can do to ensure these virtual visits 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. It’s helpful to be ready 10 to 15 minutes before your scheduled appointment in case you have any pre-visit questionnaires to fill out or have any technical difficulties. In some cases, your provider’s office might call between 15 and 20 minutes before your appointment or they might call the day before. You might even get a notification asking you to fill out a brief survey before starting the appointment that asks 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.
- Place your phone, tablet or computer on a level surface during your appointment 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 your provider to evaluate you similar as they do in the office. When you’re speaking, your care provider 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 you, not behind you. It’s difficult to see people when they’re 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.
- Take notes during the visit so you can keep track of important information, tips and after-visit care guidelines (and in most cases, providers might even send you a list of after-visit care tips with a more detailed summary of your 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 medical assistant how to send it to your provider.
- Avoid having virtual visits in a room with background noise, like 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.
- Ask guests or family members to wait in another room until your appointment is over unless they’re in the room to assist or provide additional information for your virtual visit. As sensitive information will be discussed during your visit, this can help protect your privacy and get the same level of one-on-one care you would get if you were to come into an office.
- Keep in mind that the audio may be delayed on your or your provider’s end. 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.
“By design, virtual appointments help people get the care they need in the timeliest way possible,” emphasizes Dr. Rood.