4 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Telehealth Visit

·8 min read
Photo credit: mixetto - Getty Images
Photo credit: mixetto - Getty Images

You need to get that nagging injury seen on your hour-long lunch break. But the doctor’s office is a half hour away, not counting traffic. Not to worry—as we all learned during the pandemic, visiting a physician remotely via an electronic device is easier than ever.

Telehealth (aka telemedicine) has been around in some form for decades, but it became a necessity during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Now, with in-person activities mostly back to normal, many doctors continue to offer phone and video chat options for certain types of visits, making it easy to squeeze in the care you need instead of commuting to a medical center in the middle of your workday.

The average length of a physician-led telehealth appointment is 15 minutes, according to research from the University of Michigan. Compare that to the 121 minutes spent visiting the doctor at the office, only 20 minutes of which is seeing a physician, with the rest taken up by commuting and waiting, according to The American Journal of Managed Care.

Saving time is a huge perk, but not if taking the express route compromises your level of care. The key to making that 15 minutes count is some simple prep work before chatting with your doctor.

“As a provider who performed telehealth prior to the pandemic, I saw firsthand how reluctant patients were [to use the telehealth option],” says Eric Ascher, DO, family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “Since Covid, patients have found telehealth visits much more appealing as a means of saving time, having flexibility of appointment times, and maintaining safety during the peaks of Covid.”

Over half of men have tried telehealth visits over the past two years, and the reviews are mixed as to whether or not they see it as a good way to manage their health. In a national survey of more than 1,500 men conducted by Hearst Media, the parent company of Men’s Health, only 35 percent of guys who tried telehealth liked it as much as in-person visits, while only 13 percent preferred it over in-person. As a whole, 79 percent of men feel that their care is better when they see the doctor in person.

Of course, visiting a doctor’s office is what we’re all accustomed to, so it’s understandable to be skeptical of phone and video appointments. Can getting checked out by a doctor who’s literally in a different zip code really be as effective as an in-person exam?

Yes—as long as you actively participate in the process and complement your telehealth appointments with face-to-face visits when necessary. Whether you book an electronic appointment out of preference or necessity, you can make it work better for you and all your medical needs. Below are four tips from telehealth providers on how to maximize your virtual doctor visits for the best treatment possible.

1. Show Up Prepared

First things first. Test your technology, says Barbara Bawer, MD, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Is your internet working properly? Do you know how to log on correctly? Does your microphone work? Is there good lighting in the room?” she says. Not addressing these issues beforehand can cost you valuable time as you scramble to get your tech up to snuff.

Another suggestion from Dr. Bawer: Keep your medications handy so you know the names and doses of them if asked. She also suggests you “write a list of your complaints and concerns, and present them in order from most to least important.” That way, if you get cut off or run out of time, you’ll know you at least covered the major issues.

Also, consider your location. Pick a quiet place where you (a) won’t be disturbed and (b) can talk freely about what ails you, says Erin McNeely, MD, an internal medicine physician at Spectrum Health in Grandville, Michigan. This can be any number of spots. “I have done visits with patients in their homes, outside, and even with them in their parked car,” she says, adding, “but please don’t expect to have avirtual visit while driving.”

Present your concerns in order from most to least important, in case you run out of time.

Dr. McNeely recommends being five to 15 minutes early for your virtual visit, just in case you have connection issues or think there’s a chance you might forget to clock in on time. Keep the browser window open on your computer or mute your phone while you wait. “Think of it like traffic or a detour if you were on the way to the physical clinic,” she says. “You want to be sure to get there on time and not miss your appointment.”

2. Choose Video

Telehealth is convenient whether you do it over the phone or on video. If you have an option between the two, go with the latter, says Isabel Valdez, PA-C, assistant professor of general internal medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. “More often than not, a video visit is better than a phone call because there is much we can tell about the patient just by looking at them on the camera, such as changes in breathing, rashes, or swelling of a particular area,” she says. “I also use video visits to have patients demonstrate to me how they use devices such as asthma inhalers. Some patients use them incorrectly, and seeing their technique on video gives us the chance to improve how the medication is delivered so they can start feeling better.”

Turn on your camera. Your doctor is able to tell a lot just by looking at you—such as if you are experiencing changes in breathing, rashes, or swelling of a particular area.

When meeting over video, consider what you’re wearing. If you have a physical issue, Dr. McNeely says to make sure you can actually show it. For example, wear pants you can easily pull up if discussing a rash on your calf. “We can tell a lot from videos for things like rashes, swelling, and other injuries,” Dr. McNeely says. “Your provider might also ask you to make movements or press on certain areas to check for pain.” Because of that, she says, it’s a good idea to “be sure you are in a space you can move around in a little bit.”

3. Go Remote for Sexual Health Issues

Discussing sensitive topics like sexual health can be awkward in person, especially if you don’t know your provider well. This makes telehealth a convenient, and comforting, option. The Hearst survey results reflect this, at least for younger men—52 percent of guys ages 18-34 chose to talk about sexual health issues with a doctor over the phone or video, versus 36 percent for ages 35-54, and only 6 percent for men 55 and older.

If your issue doesn’t require a physical exam, there’s really no downside to telehealth. Dr. Ascher says any sexual health matter will be discussed the same way as if you went to your doctor’s office. “Your doctor will ask you many questions—not because they are being nosy, but because this will better allow your doctor to work up your concerns, diagnose, and then treat,” he says. “I always remind my patients that I am not prying. I am only trying to better understand.”

Discuss any sexual health matter the same way as if you went to your doctor’s office.

If you need lab work done, your doctor can order it after your telehealth visit. From there, test results and next steps would occur the same way over the phone or video chat as they would in the office, says Dr. Ascher.

Dr. Bawer stresses that “anything you tell a provider is confidential,” whether you see your doctor in person or connect via telemedicine, “so you can feel comfortable that we won't share with anyone.”

4. Still Have In-Person Exams

Despite the aforementioned telehealth perks, the men in the Hearst survey clearly favor traditional doctor visits: four out of five men think they get better care in person than through phone or video.

That’s a big number—80 percent—and Dr. Ascher concedes that it’s better to seek in-person care in certain situations. “You should not do an annual exam via telehealth unless you are going to follow up with an in-person visit,” he says. “Most annual visits require a complete physical exam, which is limited by the nature of telehealth.” This often includes the doctor manually inspecting particular body parts, checking your vital signs, and possibly having blood work and an EKG done. “A physical exam is very important, as doctors are trained to examine,” he adds.

Establish an in-person relationship with your provider before switching to telehealth.

This doesn’t mean you should write off telehealth. Experts stress that you can still receive top-notch care remotely if you play an active role in the process. “Make sure to engage in the conversation during the telemedicine visit,” Dr. Bawer says. “I find that many patients are multitasking during their visits, such as washing their dishes, eating, or even driving. You wouldn’t do that at an in-person visit, so don’t do it for a virtual visit. It may send a message to the physician that you don’t really care.”

It can also be helpful to establish an in-person relationship with your provider before switching to telehealth. “Once the provider knows you,” says Dr. Bawer, “you can have just as great of an experience virtually as in person.”

Whether you’re sold on the concept or not, telemedicine is here to stay. And visits should only get better over time, says Dr. Ascher. “Telehealth is still new for many providers,” he points out. “So providers are adjusting as well.”

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