Telemedicine has been emerging as a unique option for health care for a few decades now. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made telemedicine accessible like never before. Still, there are some remaining obstacles in telemedicine before it can really work for all Americans.
Telemedicine is one component under the telehealth umbrella. In general, telehealth refers to the digital tools, technologies, and services to help people improve or manage their health. Telemedicine—perhaps the most famous piece of the telehealth puzzle—is the use of phone or video conferencing to have medical appointments.
Essentially, telemedicine can help patients who have trouble getting to their doctor’s office, for one reason or another. They may live hours away from a specialist, lack transportation options to the doctor, or have a disability or other condition that makes it challenging to go to the doctor.
Telemedicine services may be a huge benefit for these people. It may help them manage a chronic condition better, access quality treatments, or prevent medical emergencies like heart attacks and strokes.
One of the most obvious obstacles in telemedicine is the internet. Quality internet connection may be costly, so there may be financial barriers for some families. In 2020, high-speed internet bills range from $40 to $110, depending on the provider and the speed.
Furthermore, people living in remote, rural areas are perhaps the ones who would benefit most from telemedicine. Unfortunately, they are also the most likely to lack a stable, high-speed internet connection. In 2016, 39 percent of rural Americans lacked access to broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. (Learn more about the issue of broadband internet for health care here.)
The topic of insurance coverage of telemedicine services is changing almost every day. For decades, insurance companies were hesitant to cover telemedicine appointments. However, the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged insurance companies to expand their coverage to include telemedicine services. This allowed Americans to continue seeing their doctors when hospitals were crowded with COVID-19 patients.
That said, it’s unclear what the future holds for telemedicine and insurance. In early October 2020, some insurance companies announced that they would resume co-pays and deductibles for telemedicine services. For this reason, it’s wise to check with your own insurance coverage to see if it covers telemedicine, or other telehealth tools.
To get the most from telemedicine, you’ll need basic computer skills. Luckily, most telemedicine platforms are designed to be user-friendly. Most are simple, clean, and intuitive.
However, you’ll need to know how to set up a webcam, and possibly other devices (such as remote patient monitoring devices). You’ll also need to know how to use and access the internet. If this is a challenge for you, there are often classes available to improve computer literacy, or you can have a friend or loved one help you out.
Telemedicine is already evening the playing field and improving access to health care. Still, ironing out these last few hiccups would put great health care in the hands of all.
Board on Health Care Services; Institute of Medicine. The role of telehealth in an evolving health care environment: workshop summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012. Chapter 4: Challenges in telehealth. (Accessed on October 23, 2020)