The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the government — and health care systems — to ramp up their telemedicine offerings at breakneck speed to reduce the flow of traffic to emergency rooms in an attempt to avoid putting health care givers at risk.
“This is new for everybody. We are in a completely different place than we were a month ago around telemedicine,” says Paul Testa, an emergency room doctor and chief medical information officer at NYU Langone Health.
Earlier this week, Testa said visits were close to 700 a day. “A month ago, we would have been doing about 35 visits a day,” he says.
What is telemedicine?
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, telemedicine is defined as “the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to deliver care to a patient at a distant site.”
Testa says his hospital is using telemedicine both within and outside the hospital to manage the influx of patients needing care. “We're using video visits inside of our hospitals, and inside of our emergency departments, to minimize exposure to our staff, as well as exposure to other patients who are immunocompromised,” he says.
How to use telemedicine
A good place to start is to check with your health care provider, provider system or hospital’s app for a telemedicine portal, download it and follow the prompts.
“We've been doing video visits for over a year and a half — we've already done about 15,000 of them,” says Testa. “What we've learned in interviewing our patients is that more often than not, they had plans to either go to their primary care doctor and it is off-hours, or they had planned to go to a brick-and-mortar urgent care. Virtual urgent care is just more convenient than those options.”
At NYU Langone, for example, Testa says these video visits are fully integrated into patients’ online health profiles, and visible to their primary care doctors who can easily see what labs or X-rays have been ordered.
If you don’t have a primary care doctor and prefer to use urgent care when you need it, virtual urgent care apps, like PlushCare, Doctor on Demand or MDLive, can give you virtual access to a doctor, 24/7.
Ryan McQuaid, CEO and co-founder of PlushCare, says that under normal circumstances, patients who use his telemedicine platform tend to use it as a primary care provider.
He says these patients usually fall into three buckets: They use telemedicine to manage ongoing conditions, like depression, diabetes or hypertension; everyday care issues like hair loss or birth control; and urgent care issues, like cold and flu, sinus infections or UTIs. And their patients aren’t just tech-forward millennials — McQuaid says elderly patients have begun to embrace telemedicine.
PlushCare isn’t connected to local hospitals, but McQuaid hopes the platform, which is available in all 50 states, helps relieve hospital workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis by stemming some of the flow of patients.
“We are seeing an increase of about 40% patient volume in the last few weeks. Patients are more often than not able to get an appointment within the same day, if not the following day,” he said, adding that PlushCare is hiring more physicians to help with the increased demand.
How to pay for telemedicine
Typically, telemedicine is covered by insurance the same way it would be if you walked into an urgent care clinic or your doctor’s office.
On NYU Langone’s app-based system, Testa says you’re able to enter your insurance information into the app as you check in for a visit and there’s a real-time verification of coverage.
For those without insurance who often go to the ER or urgent care when they need medical attention, NYU Langone offers self-pay and sliding scale options.
PlushCare accepts most major insurers across all 50 states, so patients pay their normal office co-pay, which is usually less than $25, McQuaid said. Uninsured patients can pay out-of-pocket for an appointment, which costs $99 — that’s less than the average urgent care or ER visit. Other telemedicine app fees vary.
When should you go to the emergency room?
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a more serious nature, Testa says telemedicine can’t replace the ER. “If somebody now is actively short of breath, if they’re very concerned about their symptoms, telehealth is not going to replace everything.”
If medical treatment is necessary, an urgent care center or hospital emergency room will benefit from advance notice of your arrival to take the necessary precautions.
Get more information on what to do if you think you’ve contracted COVID-19.