Telehealth for beginners

a cartoon sketch of small person and big telehealth screen. Source: PPS impact magazine
Telehealth for beginners. Image: PPS Impact

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I have a doctor that I have been seeing for more than thirty years. She has helped me through the ups and downs, and even visited me when I was hospitalized.  When I went for a recent appointment the office staff insisted that I sign up for an online visit because she would be away all summer. I am hesitant to do this.  The office volunteered to help me, and said they hoped I would be scheduling my future visits online too. It seems like an unnecessary change but I don’t want to offend my doctor. Should I buy into Telehealth for beginners? Peggy

Dear Peggy: Welcome to the “tele-world! ” Over the past twenty years most of us have been  (gently) guided to use teleshopping, telebanking, and of course, telework. Since the Covid pandemic, telehealth (sometimes called telemedicine) is joining the tele-party. Many doctors  conducted online visits during the Covid pandemic and now continue to find that it is convenient, or enhances their practice. In your case, your physician is out-of-town but can continue seeing patients.

If your doctor is associated with a large hospital or urban medical facility, you will probably participate through an existing telehealth site, like “MyChart” or  “”. These software portals have been in development for over 20 years, and have transformed how medical information is collected and shared. Fortunately, there is lots of help online about what they do, their privacy policies, and how to get started. But even with good advice telehealth for beginners can seem daunting and scary.

You mentioned that you wanted to “see” your doctor and that is what first comes to mind when most people think of telehealth. But there are many other arenas where these medical portals are used. Patients review their test results online, can ask questions, schedule next visits, and, of course, view billing and insurance payments.

The Phones Don’t Work:

Medical offices seem to be staffing less people to handle their calls (and probably more people to manage these portals!).  It’s frustrating to reach a doctor’s office over the phone. First, you encounter long wait times and even dropped calls. Then, if you finally reach the office they put you on hold or transfer you to another department. Or, they don’t have the answers you need! This online medical system replaces these pesky phone calls, much as online banking has replaced tele-banking. 

Counter-intuitively, telemedicine does not always eliminate travel. Depending on the medical issue you face or where you live, you might need to seek a out-of-town doctor with specialized expertise.  Your initial contact with this medical expert would be through an online medical portal; you would exchange medical records during this virtual visit. Only after this initial consult might you then travel for a medical procedure.

Traveling Still:

Still, telemedicine does have an important tie-in to travel. Say you are taking a vacation or traveling for work. If you have an accident en route, a digital medical record links to your care-file back home. There is less delay in seeking treatment, and a better chance the emergency technicians know your medical history. In the telehealth portal you can designate a trusted friend to have access to your medical records- again, useful should you encounter the unexpected. 

In summing up, it sounds like your doctor’s office is making a special effort to accommodate a standing visit, even when your physician is out -of- the-office. Meanwhile they are also introducing you to their more modern way to use the health system. Remember that telehealth is not just for young people, and it could come to your rescue, literally, in some circumstances. After giving it a try for this one visit, you can always deactivate it if it doesn’t suit you. But there is a tidal wave of change taking place in health care. Chances are that your medical record, vaccination history, prescriptions, and vitals- will all be moving to a digital chart, whether or not you participate more fully. Thank you for taking the time to write-in with your question, and use an equal amount of time to explore this change.