By Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN
It may sound so impersonal: having a physician thousands of miles away examine you by looking at pathology slides, studying your rash or asking you a long series of questions. If you’re looking for hand-holding, telemedicine may not for you.
But if you’re seeking care you can’t get in your neck of the woods or want an expert to chime in on your health issue, it can be a valuable tool.
Telemedicine is clinical health care at a distance. Some experts define it as all clinical interactions between a healthcare professional – doctor, nurse practitioner, pharmacist, or others – that aren’t in person. It uses telecommunications, high-speed data lines and other modern technology to provide interactive health care.
It can involve physicians and patients talking face-to-face through live video. Or, your data may be sent to physicians for response after they have a chance to review your case.
In most cases, you can see each other and discuss the situation almost as if you were in the same room, using webcams or video cameras. In some situations, a specialized scope or even a regular camera can project live images of your problem – a mole, a strange growth on your tongue, a sudden change in your gait, the way you walk -- for the health provider to assess. It’s also used in home health, perhaps after hospitalization, to monitor vital signs and check on data such as blood sugar, EKGs, pacemaker functioning, and much more.
Of course, telemedicine – also called telehealth -- can be useful if you’re traveling and find yourself wanting advice from home , from people you know or from specialists who speak your own language.
There’s telepsychiatry and remote fetal monitoring, which allows a far-away expert to check on the health of an unborn child. You’ll see teleneurology, which can help ensure a potential stroke victim gets the necessary care. Pediatricians are available through telemedicine. And it’s often used to get a second or third opinion from a top specialist beyond your geographical reach.
Telemedicine isn’t a substitute for a primary care physician close at hand. You need someone to manage your care and see you regularly. In fact, it’s that physician or a specialist you regularly see who is most likely to suggest seeking help from a telemedicine resource.
It’s increasingly likely that your encounter with telemedicine will be reimbursed, but you can’t count on it. No matter what insurance system you rely on, telemedicine encounters require unique billing codes, something the provider will handle. If you have questions or concerns, be sure to ask about cost and reimbursement before you proceed.
In some cases, reimbursement may not be possible. Medicare may restrict your access based on your geographic location, the billing codes used, and your state. Medicaid coverage varies by state. And while several of the major health insurance companies cover telemedicine, their coverage, too, varies by state. Ask your physician, and the telemedicine specialist, what they know about reimbursement in your situation.
If you’re in a situation in which telemedicine could be helpful, it will typically be your physician, emergency room or home health agency that arranges for the consultation. But if you’re in a situation where you think a long-distance review by a specialist or real-time health monitoring for someone at home might be useful, be sure to ask about the possibility.
Barbara Bronson Gray, who writes the blogbodboss.com, is an award-winning writer and a nationally recognized health expert. She's a regular contributor to HealthDay.com, preparedpatientforum.com and thirdage.com. Barbara has worked in hospitals, as a nurse and as an administrator, led a major healthcare magazine, created a website for WebMD, and served as a leader of global communications for Amgen, the world's largest biotech company. She continues to write and speak about healthcare and has a communications consultancy. Follow her on Twitter: @bbgrayrn.