If you haven’t encountered telemedicine yet, it’s a good bet you will soon.

Telemedicine, also called telehealth, is a broad term that encompasses just about every type of digitally delivered medical service. It could be anything from electronic doctor communications, to monitoring devices chronically ill patients wear that can relay blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar and other information to doctors. 

The telemedicine services that your insurer is likely offering are more routine. They allow members who sign up to meet with a provider outside of their regular doctors via phone, video or email, any time of day or night.

While many physicians and specialists offer their own virtual health services—especially email—they aren’t necessarily available around the clock. 

Some insurers offer telemedicine as part of their own plan: others contract with outside vendors. In most cases telemedicine consultations are used for non-emergencies such as a rash, the flu or a sprain.

 In 2018, 80% of companies with more than 500 employees offered some kind of telehealth service as part of their insurance plan, compared to only 18% in 2014, according to Mercer’s 2018 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans.

And new rules issued by the Trump administration now allow Medicare Advantage plans to offer more telemedicine services for Medicare recipients, starting in 2019.

Why telemedicine is growing

Insurers have embraced telemedicine as a way to reduce healthcare costs. But there are some clear benefits for consumers too. 

Insurers have embraced telemedicine as a way to reduce healthcare costs.

Being able to consult with a doctor from home means that seniors with chronic illness can get the consistent care and monitoring they need to avoid emergencies. That can be key for those who live in rural areas or otherwise have trouble getting to the doctor.

“Telemedicine is especially attractive to baby boomers caring for their elderly parents,” says Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association. 

If you can’t get to your doctor’s office for any other reason—say, you’re on a business trip and you develop a strange rash—having a telemedicine provider gives you a place to turn, and might even save you an unnecessary trip to the ER.

And in general, you’ll pay about the same, or less, as you would for a visit to your primary care doc.

The downside of virtual doctors

Despite the big push from employers and insurers, consumers have been extremely slow to embrace telemedicine. According to the Mercer survey, only 8% of eligible employees used telemedicine services at least once last year. 

Lack of knowledge about the programs may be the biggest reason for the slow uptake, writes Beth Umland, director of research at Mercer’s Health and Benefits business in a blog post on the topic.   

Trust may also be an issue.  Many patients are hesitant to call a stranger, and opt instead to wait for a higher-cost office visit. 

More problematic is the question of how effective medical providers are at diagnosing and treating problems over the phone or video without a “hands on” experience.

In a study published in JAMA Dermatology in 2016, researchers called 16 telemedicine sites posing as patients with skin problems. Several sites misdiagnosed serious conditions and failed to ask basic follow-up questions. Clinicians’ credentials were rarely disclosed, and only 32% of the sites discussed potential side effects of prescribed medications. 

“We always have to have a plan B in case the technology just isn’t working.”
Diana Barnard, a palliative care physician at University of Vermont Health Network

How to make the most of telemedicine

Despite the slow adoption, telehealth is likely here to stay, says Watts. If you decide to try it out, use these three tips to make sure you reap the benefits.

Research the provider. Currently there are a handful of vendors that dominate the market, and in most cases they have trained staff and thorough guidelines on what type of care can be given virtually, and what needs to be handled in person.

Other vendors, however, have less experience, and some may even provide web consultations from non-doctors. So find out who you’ll be talking to before you turn to them for care.

Check your technology. In order for telemedicine to work, you or your parent need strong wifi and, often, access to video services. “We always have to have a plan B in case the technology just isn’t working,” says Diana Barnard, a palliative care physician at University of Vermont Health Network, who treats many elderly, rural patients.  

Keep your own doctor in the loop. Continuity of care can be an issue with telemedicine because you likely won’t be treated by your primary care physician or other known health care provider. It’s up to you to let your doctor know the details of any virtual doctor visits, and treatments you may have experienced, so your medical records can be complete.