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What You Need to Know About Telehealth During the Coronavirus Crisis

Almost 80% of hospitals in the U.S. now have some sort of telehealth service.

PHOTO: MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESSByStephanie ArmourMarch 22, 2020 7:00 am E

The Trump administration and public-health officials are urging consumers to use telehealth services to get remote treatment, fill prescriptions and get medical attention during the new coronavirus pandemic, and companies that offer virtual appointments are reporting a surge in demand.

The goal is to keep people with symptoms at home and to practice social distancing if their condition doesn’t warrant more intensive hospital care. Almost 80% of hospitals in the U.S. have some sort of telehealth service.

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The new emphasis is designed to free up doctors and other front-line providers by encouraging patients with unrelated ailments such as diabetes to get care online.

Here’s what people should know:

How does telehealth work?

Technology such as email, videoconferencing, video chat services such as Skype and phone enable patients to get care remotely. Responses from health-care professionals can either be provided in real time, for instance via webcam, or by directing individuals’ questions to answers that are already online.

How do I get an appointment or find a remote provider?

Check your provider’s website or check with your health insurer on how to access telehealth services. Individuals can also go directly to sites from Teladoc Health, Amwell, PlushCare, Doctor on Demand and MD Live for virtual visits, but note that some of these sites are warning consumers that they may experience longer wait times due to high demand.

What does it cost?

That depends. Insurance plans may cover telehealth if it is provided directly by a doctor or hospital, or through a telehealth service, although consumers might have a copay or other out-of-pocket charge. Under a recent change, Medicare will cover telehealth services and Medicare Advantage plans may waive or reduce cost sharing.

People can pay directly out of pocket for the entire cost of a direct-to-consumer visit and prices vary. Some cost about $50 to $80 a visit; there may be an annual membership fee.

On Tuesday, President Trump announced an expansion of Medicare telehealth services as confirmed cases for the new coronavirus rose to more than 5,700 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

How secure is telehealth?

Privacy and security varies. During the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration has waived some enforcement of a federal law that protects patient privacy if providers are operating in good faith. Still, some services such as Skype can put security at risk, experts say. Consumers can ask telehealth providers about security features such as encrypted data transmission.

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Can telehealth providers write prescriptions?

Doctors can send prescriptions directly to a local pharmacy via telehealth. Providers can’t test individuals for coronavirus but they can help identify who may need to seek a test.

Services may use doctors or practitioners who they employ or who are on contract. More state medical boards are implementing telemedicine-related standards for practitioners.

Can telehealth providers treat the coronavirus?

Health-care providers can’t diagnose a coronavirus infection during a telehealth visit, but they can offer self-care and quarantine tips, educate patients about when they need to go to a hospital, and if they do, help to coordinate testing, according to the American Telemedicine Association.

I’m a health-care provider and want to offer telehealth in my practice. Where do I start?

The American Medical Association created a quick guide to support physicians and practices in expediting the implementation of telehealth.