When you used to think of a typical doctor’s appointment, you might conjure up images of waiting rooms, stethoscopes and maybe stickers.
Now, that image has changed quite a bit. With the world shifting to increasingly remote communication amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, health appointments are often being limited to extended phone calls and video interactions. This is referred to as “telehealth.”
Not only does this create a huge shift for physicians in how they provide care, but also for patients who aren’t sure how to receive it.
We want to clear up some of that uncertainty. We asked Dr. Archelle Georgiou, a nationally recognized healthcare thought leader with 20+ years of experience, to share her advice on how to prepare for a telehealth visit. We also got feedback from the CaringBridge Facebook community, many of whom have been seen virtually in the last few months.
Read on for 5 steps to prepare for a virtual doctor’s appointment, so you can get the most out of your telehealth experience.
1. Have the Right Technology
Telehealth is most effective if you have a computer, a phone or a tablet with a camera. A virtual visit without video is essentially just a phone call, which may not be as effective since the provider cannot observe any physical symptoms or your physical expressions during the interview.
Download and install any video chat apps you need to use well ahead of your scheduled visit time. Early in the pandemic, as provider rushed to make telehealth available, they used popular videoconferencing apps like FaceTime and Skype. However, since they do not have the right level of healthcare privacy and security built in, many providers are transitioning to different platforms. Make sure to ask your provider which app you should use and how to sign in.
Once you have your app set up, figure out a way to prop your device up so that you can be hands-free during the visit.
Summary: Use a computer/phone/tablet with a camera. Download the proper telehealth app, and ask your provider if you don’t know which to use. Set up your device for hands-free communication.
2. Prepare Medical Information
Once you’re comfortable with the technology setup, take time to prepare for the medical part of the visit. Many offices ask you to complete and return symptom and history forms by the day before your appointment, and they may cancel and re-schedule if your forms aren’t submitted by the deadlines. Not ideal for either of you!
Make sure to jot down notes for yourself for the predictable questions you’ll be asked during the visit itself: When did your symptoms start? What makes them worse? What makes them better? If you have pain…what are the characteristics? Is it burning, shooting, cramping, tingling?
Too often patients are trying to think through the answers to these questions for the first time during the visit, which wastes precious time.
Summary: Prepare the necessary forms by the due date. Have symptom information prepared: when symptoms started, what makes them better/worse, and pain characteristics.
3. Conduct Your Own Physical Exam
Finally, be prepared to participate in your own physical exam. Remember, the biggest limitation of telehealth – and the biggest risk for missing something important about your condition – is the clinician’s inability to examine you. So, they need your help.
It may be helpful to invest in a good scale, thermometer, and blood pressure monitor to conduct your own exam. If you are able, on the day of your visit, measure and document the following items. Have the values available with your notes.
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate
- Respiratory rate
Note: You may be able to use your HSA or FSA for reimbursement on some of these items: thermometer, oximeter and blood pressure monitor. Check with your HSA or FSA provider to see what is covered.
Regarding clothing, you won’t be wearing a blue gown during your telehealth visit, but do wear clothing that will make it easy to do the necessary show and tell during the visit.
Your provider may ask you to point the camera to the area of concern. You should have your phone available in case they ask you to take a photo and send it to them so they can zoom in. Or, they may ask you to press on the area of your body that is painful (which is why you need to be hands-free).
If possible, have a trusted person there to assist you if there’s something that you need help with while you’re on video.
Summary: Measure and document your blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, respiratory rate and weight. Wear clothing that makes it easy to do the necessary show-and-tell with your doctor. Have your phone available to take a photo, and a trusted person available to assist you if need be.
4. Write Down Your Questions
Make a list of questions for the doctor in advance of your visit and be sure to prioritize them to make sure that your biggest concerns are addressed first. If all your questions are not answered, request a follow up telehealth visit with the provider or another member of the clinical team.
An easy way to keep track of health updates is through a CaringBridge site. The CaringBridge Journal feature allows you to record what’s happening and how you feel each day. The CaringBridge Planner can also be used to jog your memory on routines or schedules that may be helpful for your doctor to know. If you or a loved one could use a CaringBridge site, click the start a site button below.
Summary: Make a list of questions for your doctor in advance of your visit and prioritize your biggest concerns first. Request a follow up if your questions are not answered. A CaringBridge site is a great way to keep track of how you are feeling.
5. Make a Comfortable Space
A typical telehealth visit takes about 20 minutes. To make the most of this time, try to limit distractions where you can.
Use the bathroom beforehand and have a glass of water nearby so you don’t have to get up. Set up a space you feel relaxed in, with a comfortable seat and as much quiet as possible. You may find it helpful to use earbuds or headphones to minimize outside noise.
When to Be Seen Face-to-Face
So when should you be seen in-person rather than having a telehealth visit? This list is not complete, but you should be seen face-to-face if you believe you or a loved one are experiencing any of these:
- Heart attack
- Head injury/Trauma
Additionally, if you’ve given telehealth a chance and your symptoms are getting worse, it’s time for a traditional visit. If you do go to the clinic, use these safety precautions from Mayo Clinic to keep yourself and others safe.
Remember: telehealth visits are not a replacement for ALL visits. Dr. Georgiou shares a story that underscores the importance of advocating for proper healthcare:
“A dear friend called me: In last 3 weeks, his 91-year-old father was feeling dizzy, lightheaded and had fallen three times – and even had a gash in his head from one of those falls. While telehealth may have been reasonable step after the first fall… when his dad fell a 2nd and a 3rd time, he needed and deserved face-to-face care since his symptoms could be caused by more serious issues. None of those diagnoses could be made without a complete physical exam and blood tests. While we have traditionally counted on doctors to let us know when symptoms are worrisome enough that they should be evaluated in the Emergency Room, Urgent Care, or their office…. you may need to advocate for yourself – or your parent – to make sure the right care is delivered in the right place.”
Adjusting to Telehealth, Together
Telehealth is a great vehicle for delivering medical care, as long as we keep in mind its limitations. Make the most of your visit by having the right technology, being prepared with the right medical information, and being equipped and comfortable to do part of the exam on yourself.
Dr. Georgiou reminds us that it’s natural to have this all feel a little awkward. You can take comfort knowing both doctor and patient are making this adjustment together.
Now we’d like to hear your feedback: what has been your experience with telehealth? Do you have any additional tips that would be helpful? Share in the comments below!