Going to the doctor can be an ordeal. You may have to take time off of work, wait a day or more for an appointment, spend time in a waiting room full of sick people, fight traffic, and deal with the stress that all of these things entail. Wouldn’t it be easier if you could have a brief video chat with a doctor, get the medicine you need, and then get back to living your life?

That’s the promise of telehealth. As many as 71% of providers now use some form of telehealth. With this model of health care, you consult a doctor via video conferencing. The provider asks about your symptoms and medical history, then prescribes medication, lifestyle changes, and other treatments based on your needs. Telemedicine can’t treat or diagnose life-threatening conditions like cancer or complex ailments like rheumatoid arthritis. It can, however, help with routine care, monitor changes in your symptoms, and treat everyday concerns like minor infections, depression, eye and skin issues, and myriad other symptoms.

So is telehealth right for you? Here’s what you need to know.

How Telehealth Can Save Time and Money

A 2017 RAND Corporation study found that telehealth reduces the cost of medical visits. For patients with demanding schedules, telehealth can also mean the difference between seeking health care and avoiding it altogether. Perhaps that’s why the same RAND study found that telehealth also increases the number of medical visits.

In addition to reducing the cost of medical visits, telehealth may also offer more subtle cost savings, such as:

  • Reduced time away from work.
  • Greater employee productivity because people are able to easily seek care for minor medical conditions. As a result, they might not get as sick and therefore could miss less time at work.
  • Reduced overhead for doctors, some of whom may no longer need to maintain costly brick-and-mortar practices.
  • Less money spent on gas and transportation.

Increasing Access to Care

Eighty-eight percent of telehealth visits in the RAND study represented a new use of medical services. This statistic suggests that people who use telehealth might not otherwise seek care. Therefore, telehealth could be a way to improve access to medical care, particularly for people with financial or logistical barriers to quality care.

Increasing access to healthcare can boost overall health by catching illnesses early, preventing infections from getting worse, and enhancing people’s quality of life.

Dr. Ashlie Olp, the lead Direct Primary Care physician at Olp Family Medicine in Carmel, Indiana, uses an app called HALE, which allows patients to text their providers and set up appointments.

"Through the app my patients will ask about certain issues and what they should do," said Dr. Olp in an email interview. "I am able to reply within seconds, minutes or hours (at the very most), but overall, it's almost immediate. I tend to reply with ideas and options for them to try out so we can decide together if they should come visit me at the office."

Often, texting the doctor can save patents a trip, and it allows people to ask questions from the comfort of their own home, or wherever they are when they have a medical concern.

Olp says she thinks this is an improvement in doctor-patient communication because normally people have to call and leave a voicemail with the reception staff at a medical practice and they may not hear back until much later in the day or the following day.

Is Telehealth Safe and Effective?

It might seem strange for a medical visit not to include at least an exam. Yet many minor ailments can be diagnosed on the basis of a conversation. In other cases, a doctor may be able to order lab tests via telehealth. The patient then visits a lab to get the test, and a doctor interprets the results — all without the need for a potentially costly office visit.

Of course, the ultimate goal of any health visit is to improve your health. So does telehealth work? You might be surprised to learn that most research says yes. A 2017 study, published by the Neurology medical journal, looked at the role of telemedicine in the treatment of headaches and found no difference in safety or patient outcomes between telemedicine and traditional medicine. Other research has arrived at similar conclusions.

The Drawbacks of Telehealth

Over time, telehealth may not actually reduce healthcare costs. That’s because people tend to use telehealth more liberally, making more medical visits. Some analysts suggest requiring higher copays for telehealth, potentially increasing its costs.

A study conducted by the Wisconsin School of Business found that increased use of e-visits might have unintended consequences.

"Our study shows that giving patients email-like e-visit access to their doctors, does not reduce the patients’ use of office or phone visits," said Hessam Bavafa, study author and Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management. "In fact, we find that e-visits lead to more office visits without obvious improvements in patient health. We also found that doctors accepted fewer new patients after they started using e-visits."

Another significant drawback of telehealth is that the provider only sees or hears about what the patient shares. A doctor might not notice the bruise on an abuse victim's arm or the dangerous-looking swelling on a patient’s calf when a patient seeks care for an unrelated issue.

Telehealth also presents some privacy concerns, particularly if the device you use is unsecured, or you use an unsecured platform to talk to your provider. Ask the provider what specific steps you can take to ensure your appointment is secure, and whether they handle telehealth appointments differently than in-person ones. For example, might someone else be in the room with your doctor?

For some people, it’s more difficult to develop a relationship with a provider via video conferencing. Trusting your doctor can help you open up, ask tough questions, and adopt healthy lifestyle changes. So people who connect better in person may get better results from telehealth.

When to Consider Telehealth

Telemedicine offers fast, convenient care for minor ailments and routine follow-up care. Consider giving it a try when:

  • You have symptoms you’ve previously had, such as of a urinary tract or yeast infection.
  • You have signs of a minor infection or other ailments, such as a mild burn, an ear infection, a rash, or a sunburn.
  • You need a refill of an established prescription or need ongoing monitoring for a prescription drug you use.
  • You need a referral to a specialist or have a question about whether a symptom you’re experiencing is cause for concern.

Telemedicine is not a viable alternative to the emergency room if you have a medical emergency. If you have a broken bone, think you might need stitches, have symptoms of an emergency such as a heart attack, think you might need surgery, or otherwise have reason to believe you need active medical treatment, you need to see a doctor in person.

"Like any other technology the use of telehealth will be refined over time," Bavafa said. "One analogy that I think of is how over time Amazon improved our online shopping experience, or how Uber improved the way we transport. None of these happened overnight and there had to be many iterations. While the shape of that future is not clear to me, I am very optimistic about what comes next in telehealth."


About the Expert Contributors: 

Dr. Ashlie Olp is the lead Direct Primary Care physician at Olp Family Medicine in Carmel, Indiana. She focuses on all types of family medicine, but has a specialty in women's health.  

Hessam Bavafa is an Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management at the Wisconsin School of Business. His recent projects are based on econometric analysis and stochastic optimization models and have focused on innovation in health care delivery models, physician workload and panel sizes in primary care, and resource management in hospitals.