How to get the most from your virtual doctor's visit

These seven tips can help you get the medical care you need — from your phone or tablet.
Wherever the wifi signal is best is where I'll be
"Telehealth has been a great way to accomplish some of those interval check-ins,” said Dr. Ethan Halm.Getty Images stock

Dr. Michael Sherman is chief medical officer and senior vice president of health services for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in Wellesley, Mass. He’s also a parent, so when his 10-year-old daughter Lila recently needed a checkup for her asthma, he decided to try a virtual doctor’s visit.

He and his family connected with Lila’s doctor through video — Lila took the lead, with Sherman and his wife in the background.

“They asked questions about her breathing, symptoms and medication use,” Sherman said. While Lila will have to hold off on some in-person testing until restrictions lift, Sherman said he was very satisfied with the experience.

“I admit as a parent, I was wondering, ‘Is this going to be quite as effective?’ I was happily surprised,” he said.

Sherman and his family are part of a skyrocketing number of people seeking care through virtual doctor’s visits these days. With the pandemic shutting down in-person appointments at medical offices nationwide, most primary care doctors and specialists have ramped up their telemedicine capabilities in the last couple of months. Sherman said his company saw online doctor’s visits climb 8,000% from February to April this year.

How do virtual doctor’s visits work?

With a virtual doctor’s appointment, you connect with a doctor over secure video. Typically, your doctor’s office will send you a link, or you download an app. Once you click on the link or open the app, you’ll likely answer some questions about your condition and then you’ll connect with your doctor for a conversation and evaluation.

Outside of procedures like surgeries and biopsies, you can schedule a virtual doctor’s visit for just about anything you would see a doctor in-person for

“For most adult patients who have a chronic disease and see their doctor two, three or four times a year, telehealth has been a great way to accomplish some of those interval check-ins,” said Dr. Ethan Halm, head of COVID-19 telehealth for internal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “You can do about 70 to 80% of what you can do in the office for most patients.”

How to make your virtual doctor’s visit go smoothly

If you haven’t tried a virtual doctor’s appointment yet, you might be apprehensive. These seven tips can make it less intimidating. Here's how to do a virtual doctor visit and make the most of it.

1. Try to schedule your visit with your regular doctor. Your doctor knows your medical history and medications. But if your doctor doesn’t have convenient time slots, an insurance company like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna or United Healthcare, or a pharmacy like Walgreens or CVS might offer virtual appointments.

2. Use a phone or a tablet if you can. Halm said that these devices tend to have fewer problems with connectivity compared to laptop or desktop machines. Plus, if your doctor wants a closer look at something — a rash or a swollen ankle, say — it’s easier to move the phone or tablet than to try to position yourself in front of a fixed computer camera.

3. Bump up your lighting. You want something brighter than that soft, flattering lighting you’re using for your Zoom meetings. Sherman said your doctor will want to get a good look at you, try to gauge your mood, and maybe estimate your breathing rate.

4. Find a private, quiet space. Your doctor may ask you sensitive questions or need you to undress. Dr. Ronald Tamler, director of digital health implementation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, said a lot of patients go into the bathroom for their visits.

And Dr. Tania Elliott, the co-chair of the Virtual Health Clinical Task Force at New York University Langone Health and a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, likes wearing headphones: “It reinforces the privacy piece — no one else is hearing what you’re saying.”

5. Log in 15 or 20 minutes before your virtual appointment time. You’ll need some time to fill out your online paperwork and to make sure your technology is working properly.

6. Gather medications and information. Have your pill bottles nearby so your doctor can review them. Elliott said sometimes people will request refills on blood pressure medication when in fact it’s their cholesterol medication that’s running low.

If you track your blood pressure or blood glucose, have those details ready to share with your doctor. And it’s a good idea to have a handy way to take notes during the appointment.

7. See if you can loop in other people. Ahead of time, find out if multiple people can log in. Virtual visits are a great opportunity for people to join in with their aging parents or with their young adult children to help monitor their care.

Additionally, said Elliott, “It’s very easy with video to coordinate appointments with a couple of different doctors.” So you might be able to arrange to have, say, your cardiologist or endocrinologist join in on your virtual visit with your primary care doctor to better coordinate your care.