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Telehealth vs. in-person care: Which is better for what healthcare needs?

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If you’ve scheduled a visit with a doctor since the onset of COVID-19, you’ve probably been asked the question by the scheduler if a telehealth visit is okay. And, if you’re like most people, you’d probably heard of telehealth but never experienced it.

Let’s look a little deeper at telehealth, its pros and cons, how it stacks up against in-person visits, the major players in the telehealth industry, and the insurance considerations you need to know about.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth has been around since the 1950s, but the onset of the pandemic has caused a massive increase in its use.

Telehealth is a broad term that refers to using electronic and telecommunications technologies to provide medical care and services from a distance. Healthcare providers use platforms such as video, audio, or instant messaging to address a patient’s concerns and make a diagnosis of their condition remotely.

Telehealth isn’t to be used in every medical situation, like emergency treatment. Any health condition that requires immediate treatment, such as an injury, shortness of breath, or chest pains, should be addressed in person with a physician.

Here’s a chart that can help you determine situations when you’d use telehealth vs. seeking in-person care:

Medical Concern Can use telehealth Seek in-person care
Sore throat
Infected wound
Broken bone
Deep wound
Cold or flu symptoms
Chest pain

Source: Mira

The pros & cons of telehealth

Before deciding if you’re going to use telehealth for a condition that is appropriate for it, let’s look at the pros and cons.

Pros of telehealth

  • Cost: telehealth is generally more affordable compared to in-person care.
  • Accessibility: people with mobility limitations or who live in rural areas may find telehealth more accessible.
  • Safety: Telehealth eliminates time spent in the healthcare provider’s waiting area, which reduces the spread of infectious diseases, such as the coronavirus.
  • Convenience: you can access care with telehealth from the comfort of your own home or a private space at work.

Cons of telehealth:

  • Situational: telehealth can’t address all of your healthcare concerns. In-person care is necessary for x-rays, bloodwork, and diagnoses that require a more hands-on approach, such as checking swollen glands, diagnosing skin cancer, or performing a biopsy on suspicious cysts.
  • Security: because personal and medical information is being exchanged electronically, the security of telehealth can be a concern for some.
  • Coverage: not all states require insurance companies to cover telehealth (though most do); even patients with insurance might face out-of-pocket costs.

The pros & cons of in-person care

Like telehealth, in-person care has its advantages and disadvantages:

Pros of in-person care

  • Doctor-patient relationship: many providers and patients connect better in person than through electronic communication.
  • Treatment through touch: some physical maladies and examinations require the physical touch of a doctor or nurse, which can’t be done through telehealth.
  • Better options for young children: young children are more at ease with an in-person visit, and it’s easier for doctors to diagnose and treat an illness.

Cons of in-person care

  • Cost: seeing a healthcare provider in their office incurs fuel costs, possibly tolls and other charges, and wear and tear on a vehicle.
  • Time: time is lost commuting to the appointment, waiting to see the provider, and possibly lost productivity through missing work.
  • Risk of exposure: doctor’s offices are frequented by people with viruses, some of which are contagious. Exposure to these viruses can cause an individual feeling ill to become even sicker than they were before visiting the doctor.

Top telehealth companies leading the way

Because of its widespread use, over two dozen companies now offer telehealth services for doctors and patients. These are some of the leaders:

  • Teladoc is the most well-known telehealth provider. They offer 24/7 access to physicians via video or phone call, enabling users to get medical care whenever and wherever they need it. Teladoc is highly rated in app stores and by its broad user base.
  • Livongo is focused on developing personalized health improvement programs rather than diagnosing and treating acute health issues. The company provides users with hardware that tracks health data, enabling them to suggest lifestyle improvements.
  • Navigating Cancer creates digital platforms that help people through the cancer treatment process. Patients can report their symptoms and side effects and receive a personally designed treatment plan. Doctors can also monitor patient progress and needs through the platform.
  • 98point6 allows patients to interact with an AI system before they connect with a doctor. The AI provides triage so the patient can get the most appropriate care. The platform uses image and voice recognition, as well as data input by the patient. 98point6 is growing rapidly because of its ease of use and the results it’s producing.
  • 23andMe uses your genetics to determine diseases you’re at risk for and provides support plans that help you avoid or manage those conditions. Using genetics for prevention is a growing area of telehealth.
  • Amazon (yes, that Amazon) has built a telehealth service called Amazon Care, which is now available to Amazon employees, and they’re working towards providing the service to companies nationwide.

[ Survey: Would you buy insurance from Amazon, Facebook, or Google? ]

Is telehealth covered by insurance?

Most, but not all, insurance companies cover telehealth services. Those that do process claims just as they do for services provided at a healthcare facility. Your policy will explain what is covered and if any pre-certification or referral is needed before having a telehealth appointment. Check with your insurance company to be sure.

Federal waivers allow broad coverage for telehealth through Medicaid, but COVID-19 reimbursement policies vary from state to state.

Medicare Part B will cover telehealth services like routine office visits, psychotherapy sessions, and consultations if an eligible provider provides them.

Medicare Part B will also cover telehealth services to enable a rapid diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of acute stroke symptoms. In addition, telehealth services from home are also covered for people being treated for substance abuse or co-occurring mental health disorders.

[ Related: What does health insurance actually cover? ]

A final word

Telehealth may be the future of healthcare. Digital doctor visits and advanced medical software are making healthcare more available, efficient, and effective. Over the next few years, telehealth will likely continue growing in new and exciting ways.

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

— Published September 8, 2022
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