The Pros and Cons of Telehealth Virtual Healthcare Visits
During the height of the COVID pandemic, many of us had the opportunity to use telehealth for the first time. In order to address medical concerns while social distancing, virtual doctor visits suddenly became readily available to patients of all ages. Now that many COVID restrictions have been reduced, many people wonder if virtual healthcare visits are still a viable option.
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What is Telehealth?
Telehealth is a visit with your healthcare practitioner from the comfort of your home or any location where you have access to communication technology, such as a desktop computer, laptop, or hand-held device. Other terms used to describe this type of healthcare delivery are telecare, telehealthcare, telemedicine, remote medicine, or e-visit.
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History of Telehealth
The practice of conducting virtual home healthcare visits is hardly new. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used electronic healthcare delivery in the 1960s to monitor vitals during the Mercury space program. Later, NASA built on the technology and applied it to conduct a pilot project to extend healthcare to people in rural areas.
Virtual visits became part of the solution in managing the COVID crisis with the hope that avoiding a physical presence in healthcare facilities would reduce the risk of passing on or picking up the highly contagious coronavirus. Telehealth is now part of our vernacular, facilitated by the COVID pandemic. To limit exposure to the coronavirus, patients shifted away from the medical office and migrated to virtual visits.
The medical profession and insurance industry recognized the need, and many people began to get comfortable with non-emergency virtual visits. To understand why this enthusiasm is likely to continue, consider the benefits of telemedicine for seniors.
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Benefits of Telehealth for Older Adults
Healthcare at home
Telemedicine for the elderly opens access to services they may not otherwise have due to challenges leaving home for medical visits. Lack of mobility, inability to drive or find transportation, and a harsh climate are some reasons older adults may have difficulty getting to a doctor’s office. Virtual visits are also advantageous to residents of rural areas who live far from healthcare facilities.
Referring to the benefits of a remote disease management support team developed by Veterans Affairs (VA), an article in the National Academies Press states that “use of technologies for chronic disease care management has been associated with reductions in hospitalizations, readmissions, lengths of stay, and costs; improvement in physiologic measures; high rates of satisfaction; and better adherence to medication.”
Aging in place
Aging in place refers to the choice of staying in your home versus transitioning to a housing alternative like assisted living or long-term care. Family members or home health aides may help you with daily living activities at home. Telehealth for seniors is another type of support that enables you to receive healthcare services at home, including monitoring chronic conditions, addressing new symptoms and palliative care to manage pain.
If you’re having a busy day, you’ll appreciate the convenience and time savings that a virtual home healthcare visit offers. You don’t have to drive to a doctor’s office, sit in traffic, check in with the receptionist, sit in the waiting room and then reverse the trip.
Medicare Telehealth Coverage
Medicare coverage includes specific telehealth services like office visits, consultations and psychotherapy. Generally, this applies to rural settings, but even if you are not in a rural area, you may be eligible for Medicare telehealth benefits if you need:
- Monthly home dialysis if you have end-stage renal disease (ESRD)
- Diagnosis, evaluation, or symptom management to treat an acute stroke
- Services for treatment at home if you have a disorder related to substance abuse or mental health (dual disorder)
Your telehealth visit must be with a provider who accepts assignments and is currently participating in Medicare. Your share of the cost is 20% of the Medicare-approved amount and the Part B deductible will apply. If you have enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, check your policy for telehealth benefits that may extend beyond Original Medicare coverage.
Limitations of Telehealth for Older Adults
Some people prefer face-to-face on-site visits versus a conversation through a screen. Camera angles, lighting and internet connectivity can make telehealth feel awkward and add another layer of stress if you’re already uneasy with healthcare visits.
Because there is no opportunity for a physical exam, patients may feel like a virtual visit is not comprehensive. Typically, doctors and patients use telehealth for a needs assessment, pain management and follow-ups. If you need to have blood drawn or imaging studies done, you still need to go to a medical office or lab physically.
Understandably, some people have security concerns regarding telehealth for elderly patients. Your health data is transmitted over the internet, and video chats can be recorded. To guard against hackers, be sure you are connected to a private network. You probably don’t want to have your virtual visit from your local coffee shop.
If you do not currently have Medicare coverage, confirm with your insurance company that telehealth is covered to avoid unexpected out-of-pocket expenses. Not all states require insurance companies to offer telehealth benefits.
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Future of Telehealth for Seniors
According to Harvard Health, “the use of telehealth has grown significantly over the last decade. Currently, 76% of hospitals in the U.S. connect doctors and patients remotely via telehealth, up from 35% a decade ago.” There are no signs that this trend is ending anytime soon. “One in four Americans over age 50 said they’d had a virtual healthcare visit during the first three months of the pandemic, up from just 4% of older adults who’d had a remote visit the previous year.”
If you need to speak with your doctor regarding a health concern or questions, contact your provider’s office to discuss telehealth options. If you have a preference between a virtual doctor’s visit and an in-person visit, let your provider know. You may be encouraged to engage with a provider online before heading into the office – or your doctor may prefer you visit in person based on your condition or symptoms.
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