What Is a Virtual Doctor Visit?
A virtual doctor visit is when a patient and doctor interact through technology, such as a video call, instead of meeting face to face.
Virtual visits are safe, cost-effective, and allow patients to seek care and advice from the comfort of their homes without the need to arrange transportation or sit around in a doctor’s waiting room.
These video visits are one form of what healthcare providers call telehealth services.
Telehealth is a term that describes using technology for the remote provision of healthcare services without the need for an in-person visit to a doctor’s office.
Telehealth applies to more than just primary care
These remote services extend beyond primary care and may also include other aspects of virtual care such as:
Healthcare provider training and education
Virtual follow-up visits
Monitoring the progress of chronic conditions
Tracking health data through wearable devices
Discussing the progress of ongoing treatment plans
Ordering prescription refills
Sending referrals for urgent care or specialty care
Telehealth clinicians aren’t limited to physicians. They also include nurse practitioners, integrative health and wellness practitioners, behavioral health professionals, physiotherapists, and others.
Some people incorrectly use the terms “telehealth” and “telemedicine” interchangeably. Telemedicine actually describes medical care consultations between clinicians and patients, which means that telemedicine is one type of many telehealth services.
What conditions can telemedicine help treat?
Clinicians can use telehealth appointments to diagnose, treat, and manage numerous conditions without the need for an office visit, including:
Aches and pains
Back pain and sprains
Behavioral and mental health issues
High blood pressure
Infections such as pink eye or strep throat
Minor burns or cuts
Minor musculoskeletal injuries
Monitoring chronic conditions
Infections such as pink eye, strep throat, or urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Painful urination (dysuria)
Sinus infections (acute sinusitis)
Upper respiratory illnesses
What to expect from a virtual doctor's appointment
The process of booking and attending a virtual doctor’s appointment is easy, with just a few simple steps.
The first step in a virtual doctor’s visit is scheduling an appointment. Patients can do this either by phoning, emailing, or booking through an app or web portal on their smartphone or tablet.
When booking, they’ll need to answer questions about their symptoms and what sort of clinician they’d like to see. They may also input information about their primary care physician and whether they’d like you to send a record of the consultation to their doctor to help align their treatment plan.
Many providers will have a range of time slots and clinicians to choose from, so patients can select who they want to see, at a time that suits them best.
For a virtual visit with the vast majority of telemedicine providers, the only equipment needed is a smartphone, laptop or desktop computer, tablet, or another device with internet access.
The patient may need to download and install an app to their smartphone or log onto a web portal through their preferred web browser.
After booking the appointment, the patient will receive a notification through the app closer to the actual appointment time, prompting them to virtually check-in a few minutes before the consultation begins. This lets you know they’re waiting to see you.
Most provider apps or web portals will ask patients to confirm their identity. They can do this by providing specific personal information, like their date of birth, but they may also answer security questions or use facial recognition software on their device’s camera.
Once they’re checked in for your appointment, the patient should make sure they’re in a quiet place where they’ll be able to speak freely and you can both hear each other without disturbances. They should also check that their internet connection is strong and reliable to avoid interruptions.
4. During the consultation
You will call the patient when they’re ready to begin the consultation.
Most telehealth visits work very similarly to traditional consultations. You will discuss the patient’s symptoms with them, inquire about their medical history and any relevant family history, and, in most cases, proffer a diagnosis during the call.
Some providers will also offer you the option to chat with patients via instant messaging, similar to how you would communicate with a friend via text message.
5. After the consultation
After the consultation, you’ll send the patient a summary of the consultation with your notes and recommendations. If they give you permission, you can also forward a record of the consultation to their primary care physician (if that’s not you).
Patients can usually receive these notes via app in the form of a downloadable and printable PDF file, through email, or both.
Sometimes, you may want to refer the patient to see someone else for specialist care or prescribe medications for them. In these instances, you can send both referrals and prescriptions as secure emails or PDF files.
On-demand visits and scheduled visits
Some providers also allow for both scheduled and “on-demand” virtual doctor’s appointments.
A scheduled visit is more akin to a traditional doctor’s visit where the patient books an appointment ahead of time, usually within hours or days.
An on-demand visit puts the patient in touch with the next available clinician as soon as possible if the patient feels the need to speak to someone urgently.
How to pay for telehealth visits
In the past, health insurance coverage for telemedicine was spotty. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, we saw a widespread revision of regulations and extension of telehealth coverage.
This included the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) allowing covered health insurers the flexibility to enforce the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules at their own discretion for telehealth services. Years later, those changes appear to be permanent.
Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance plan beneficiaries are all eligible for telehealth visits. If someone isn’t part of a group health plan, their employer or insurance company may still offer reimbursement for telehealth visits through health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) or health stipends.
If they don’t have any of the above, there are still many providers that offer pay-as-you-go telehealth visits.
Are virtual doctor visits effective?
Yes. Virtual doctor visits are highly effective for diagnosing and treating many conditions.
In the past, some patients had concerns about the quality of care afforded by virtual doctor visits, believing that parity of care with in-office visits was unachievable.
However, the sweeping reforms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have made telehealth far more accessible for patients and improved clinician quality and compensation for both physicians and nurse practitioners. Recent studies now strongly refute these past misgivings.
According to research from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), while telehealth isn’t best placed to treat any and all conditions, “There is a large volume of research reporting that clinical outcomes with telehealth are as good as or better than usual care and that telehealth improves intermediate outcomes and satisfaction.”
Their review of research goes on to state that “telehealth can expand critical care, speed emergency care decisions, and replace much face-to-face care, which now has an added benefit of reducing exposure to infection.”
What are the important differences between telehealth and in-person care?
Both telehealth and in-person care have benefits and drawbacks depending on the context and circumstances in which they’re delivered. Both are integral to a comprehensive and well-functioning healthcare system that serves everyone.
Benefits of telehealth
Cost effectiveness: Virtual visits reduce the costs of in-person care and associated costs like travel and childcare.
Safety: Virtual care reduces transmission of infections.
Time-saving: Virtual doctor visits save time traveling to and from appointments.
Flexibility: Some services and clinicians are available 24 hours a day and on weekends.
Working remotely: Virtual care can be performed just about anywhere, as long as the clinician and patient have access to a communications platform, and follow state by state regulations.
Choice: Patients can choose the clinician they feel suits them best.
Reduced wait times: Patients spend less time waiting between booking and seeing their clinician.
Convenience: Patients can even get a prescription sent to their preferred pharmacy when available.
Accessibility: Telehealth provides access for people with reduced mobility or disabilities and those who live in remote or rural areas.
Benefits of in-person care
Physical examination: Doctors still need to perform certain tests hands-on in the doctor’s office or hospital. These include listening to the patient’s heart with a stethoscope, inspecting lumps and fractures, and performing breast or prostate exams.
No need for technology: For those who can’t afford the technology, or who prefer offline solutions, in-person care remains the most attractive option. This group includes older adults and people with specific religious beliefs.
Performing a wider range of tests: Clinicians still need to perform blood tests, cardiograms, X-rays, CT and MRI scans, and many other types of exams requiring specialized equipment at a doctor’s office or hospital.
The personal touch: Some patients will always prefer a face-to-face encounter, and like to feel they have a relationship with their physician that technology can’t replicate, and that’s absolutely fine.
Ultimately, the choice between in-person and virtual visits comes down to the type of care a person needs and the patient’s preference. A 2021 study examining a large data sample suggests that providers score similarly for patient satisfaction and outcomes in both telemedicine visits and in-person care
Virtual doctor visits are increasingly becoming a trusted and indispensable pillar of the healthcare system, plugging gaps in accessibility and achieving parity of care with traditional doctor visits in the wake of the pandemic.
At Wheel, we advocate for our clinicians to make sure they’re protected and compensated to the highest standard. If you’re interested in the flexibility and greater opportunities available through telehealth, get in touch with us today.