As coronavirus control measures keep us at home, many in our patient communities may be worried about how they can access needed health care. In addition to symptoms that might be COVID-19, people still need ongoing care for their myositis, myasthenia gravis, CIDP, and other chronic conditions even during the pandemic. And of course there will still be concerns about injuries, tick bites, allergies, and other everyday needs.
Fortunately, telemedicine is emerging as a way for patients to get the care they need without having to visit the doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or emergency room. During the COVID-19 crisis, regulations and payment policies are being relaxed to allow access to care remotely, so you don’t have to risk exposure to coronavirus infection. Remote visits allow you to discuss your healthcare issues in real time with your healthcare provider by phone, email, video chat, or through your provider’s patient portal.
If you contact your provider and he or she recommends a virtual visit, here are some ways you can prepare ahead of time so you can make the most of this opportunity:
- Take care of the routine requests. If you need medication refills or paperwork for your employer or insurance plan, you can ask the office staff for this over the phone or manage it through the patient portal. You may not even need a visit with the provider for this.
- Check with your insurance plan. Many insurance plans are providing coverage for telemedicine services. It’s best to give them a call ahead of time, however, just to be sure your visit will be covered.
- List your medical concerns. Write down the two or three issues you want to be sure to discuss during the virtual visit, so you don’t forget the important things. (It’s a good idea to do this with in-person visits too.)
- List your medications. Write down all the medications—including over-the-counter meds and supplements—that you are currently taking. Include the dose and how often you take them. And be sure to mention anything you take “as needed,” such as pain medications and antacids.
- List your symptoms. Write out what symptoms are giving you trouble, when they started, how they have changed, what seems to trigger them, and what seems to make them better.
- Send photos. Skin issues, such as rashes, bruises, moles, lumps, and insect bites can be “examined” by the provider in a picture. Be sure the image is in focus and you have good lighting when you take the picture. If a rash is spreading, you can take a series of photos over several hours or days, drawing a circle around the area with a pen. Be sure to note the date and time. Ask the staff when you make the appointment how they prefer you to send these images: email, text, or through the patient portal.
- Organize your data. If you have been monitoring symptoms, such as blood pressure, blood sugar, weight (to identify water retention), or temperature, have these numbers organized and available. It’s also a good idea to have this equipment available during the visit so you can take these measurements then too.
- Be ready to talk. Be prepared to answer the phone at the time of the appointment so you aren’t playing phone tag. Find a quiet place with good cell phone reception so you and the provider can both hear well.
- Know your equipment. If you are using video applications, be sure you know how the technology works ahead of time. You may even want to test out the camera and microphone on your device ahead of time.
Not all issues lend themselves to telemedicine visits. Emergency situations, such as a heart attack or stroke, cuts or lacerations, or broken bones that require x-rays, splints, or casts need to be handled at the emergency room. Telemedicine also won’t work for procedures, such as PAP smears, mammograms, EMG studies, and cardiograms (unless you have special equipment that can collect and transmit an EKG).
Generally, virtual visits work best for simple issues and follow-up consultations that don’t require hands-on examination or in-person observation. Your provider’s office staff can help you decide if a telemedicine visit will work or if your concern might be better handled in person.
If you do need to go to the office or emergency room, you can be sure that everything possible is being done to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Most providers screen patients on the phone to be sure they don’t have symptoms of infection. If they do, those patients are usually seen outside in their car, so they don’t bring the virus into the office.
Equipment and clinic surfaces are disinfected thoroughly and frequently. Healthcare providers usually wear as much personal protective gear as they have available, including gloves, gowns, masks, eye protection, and shoe coverings. You should also wear a mask whenever you go anywhere other people may be nearby, including to a medical facility.