For many conditions (like mental health concerns and acne) and in many situations (like birth control and refills for chronic conditions), telemedicine can make getting care a lot faster and easier.
Reasons to consider telemedicine
Here are some of the potential benefits of telemedicine over a traditional doctor’s visit.
The #1 reason for a virtual doctor’s visit is the convenience. If you’re coming down with something and don’t want to leave your bed, a quick call or video chat with a provider can sound mighty appealing. Even if you’re feeling fine and just need a routine prescription, you save time (and gas or car fare) by skipping the trip to the doctor’s office. Telemedicine is also a good option if you can’t take time off work or school, or would need to find childcare.
In the past, telemedicine services have typically offered care for either general health concerns (much like a primary care physician) or issues that require a specialist. Today, many platforms provide both routine treatments and specialized care for areas like behavioral health, sexual health, dermatology, preventive care, and chronic conditions. Many have also partnered with local labs to offer convenient and affordable tests and screenings.
For the most part, telemedicine services can match you with a board-certified physician, sparing you the hassle of searching for an appropriate in-network provider who’s also accepting new patients and is close enough to get to. This means it’s easier for anyone, anywhere to get exactly the type of medical attention they need.
Lower costs and use of insurance
While a telemedicine visit is likely to save you some money, the cost will vary depending on what medical services you’re looking for. A 10-minute general consultation for common issues (like cold and flu, allergies, pink eye, or a UTI) starts at around $15, while a 45-minute psychiatric consultation can run you about $250.
Many telemedicine providers accept insurance or partner with specific insurers or employers to offer lower fees (either as a copay or a subsidized fee). Providers that don’t accept insurance may still be more affordable than your insurance copay for an in-person doctor’s visit.
Many private insurance plans will cover a telemedicine visit. Ask your insurance company what your coverage includes and whether you need prior approval for telehealth services before making an appointment.
Medicare and Medicaid have also expanded telemedicine coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Medicare will pay for office, hospital, and other visits for several types of providers. Medicaid coverage for telemedicine varies by state.
Along with a healthcare provider, many telemedicine platforms will pair you with a care coordinator or care team to ensure a good experience. Even before your virtual doctor’s visit, they can help with the intake of information, like photo ID, insurance details, pharmacy preferences, and medical history. They may also follow up to see how your treatment is going and even help find cost-saving medication options, with or without insurance.
And when is telemedicine not appropriate?
Though some telemedicine companies boast “urgent care” services, this typically means services limited to general medical care (think sinus infections, migraines, and mild sports injuries). If you think you’re seriously ill or experiencing an emergency, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
Can I get a prescription without seeing a doctor in person?
It depends. The rapid growth of telemedicine, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, has improved accessibility to care for many people, but not all health issues can (or should) be addressed online. Each state also has their own laws about what can be e-prescribed without an in-person appointment or a previously established patient-provider relationship.
Many healthcare providers see telemedicine as a low-risk option for certain routine treatments. In an internal GoodRx survey, 50% of prescribers said they would be comfortable prescribing routine medications for non-severe problems (like acne, acid reflux, and herpes) without seeing a patient in person. Seventy-five percent of prescribers said they’d be comfortable doing so for refills for an ongoing treatment (like birth control, statins, and thyroid medications). You will inevitably still need to consult a healthcare provider if you need a new prescription — but this may look different depending on the type of telemedicine service you choose.
If you have an active prescription and just need a refill, you may not need to set up a new consultation with a doctor to get an e-prescription “written.” Many platforms are equipped with care coordinators and clinical staff who can help you get a prescription refill without seeing a doctor directly, virtually, or in person. Some telemedicine services may even help you transfer existing prescriptions to their platform so you can avoid paying for a new consultation. Some platforms have partnered with local laboratories to offer diagnostic tests for a range of concerns, like HIV, diabetes, and STIs. Once your lab is ordered, you’ll still need to go to a diagnostic lab or service center near you, though at-home tests are quickly gaining popularity. Similarly, by offering mail-order prescription delivery, telemedicine can be a full-service solution for certain conditions.
What are my options for telemedicine?
There are a lot of telemedicine companies, so the following is just an example of what’s available. Each of the services below are available on iPhones, Android devices, and desktop computers. As with drug prices, it’s important to shop around to find one that fits your budget and needs.