Does being seen by your general practitioner in the comfort of your own home sound convenient? How about skipping the middle man and ordering your own lab tests? Could monitoring your own health record online from your smartphone be advantageous to you?
Using modern-day technology to take control of your health care may sound like an unmanageable, far-reaching, and unaffordable idea, but it’s actually quite the opposite, and it’s not a new concept. Telemedicine, ‘Internet Doctors‘ and the days of ordering your own labs tests online may sound futuristic but in reality, the future of health care is already here.
Over the past 15 years, more and more patients just like yourself, physicians, and hospitals are taking advantage of technology to better provide access to health care. That fast and convenient access is the very reason why everyday people are being empowered by online health care, why they have a wider variety of access to specialists, and why they have the benefits of full-time monitoring by nurses and physicians without the daily interruptions that are part of a hospital stay. Although the United States has been slow to embrace telemedicine, it’s has inevitably caught on and is fast becoming the way of the future – your future.
What is Telemedicine?
This may be your first time you’ve heard of “Telemedicine” or “Telehealth”, but it may not be the first time that you’ve taken advantage of it.
Some examples may be that time a registered nurse called you every week for six weeks to monitor your chronic health condition. It could’ve been that time your primary doctor sent over images of your dermatitis to a specialist six hours away and you followed a treatment plan based on that specialist’s recommendations. It might have even been as simple as posting a question of your condition to a forum for some online medical advice that a web doctor responded to. These are all examples of telemedicine at work.
All in all, telemedicine is the actual delivery of medical services in the form of using technology. This can even include the transmission of medical health records between patients, physicians, specialists, labs, and hospitals, although, this is more commonly referred to as HIT (Health Information Technology).
With a day and age where having face to face chatting on your smartphone or instant access to online videos and email is now considered the norm, it makes sense that the health industry should innovate and integrate technology to make access to healthcare easier, more affordable, and convenient than ever.
But, how does this start and where can you get this type of service from?
Traditionally, health care starts in the doctor’s office after a long wait in the lobby next to other sick, coughing, and out-of-sorts patients; the type of place you don’t want to take your immune-compromised infant or elder parent to. Well, the good news is you won’t have to leave your home to talk with a physician and get the appropriate prescriptions, access to medications, or medical advice that you need to get better promptly; this is called “remote care”. Remote care is a huge part of telemedicine, and the most interactive use of it is the consultation with an online doctor.
But, are you worried about the quality of care or maybe even skeptical of the safety and effectiveness of it? Well, there’s no need to be. Let the benefits of using telemedicine speak for themselves.
Benefits of Online Doctors
Whether you have a chronic condition, a superficial wound, or you want to avoid the costs of an emergency room visit for a non-life-threatening injury, a consult with a doctor online might just be for you. The benefits of this type of telemedicine are:
Convenience – You don’t have to travel anywhere, spend money on gas, or wait in a lobby room; get a babysitter, wait a week for your scheduled appointment, or take time off work. You can talk to a doctor online from your office cubicle or from the bedroom in your home. If you’re homebound, you’ll certainly appreciate the convenience of reduced travel time. A lot of telemedicine providers make it as simple as enrolling in their system and selecting a doctor from the clinic list. You can then talk to them using a smartphone app or computer.
Access – If traveling to see a specialist is a concern for you or even if you live remotely with few physicians in your area, seeing an online doctor and specialist is an excellent way to open up your choices to be able to be seen by other medical experts. One of the biggest benefits of telehealth is that there are no location boundaries. This form of telehealth improves your access to be treated by physicians from all over the country.
Access to Prescriptions – When you need a low-level prescription medication or even a refill, it doesn’t mean you have to schedule another trip to the doc’s office. An online doc can write one for you after your 15 minute consultation if it’s needed. It’s not difficult to get a prescription online. Online Dr’s may vary on what prescriptions they can offer, but when you have an ear infection and Amoxicillin is just a script away, it could be the difference between a painful and sleepless night or a rested and recovering one.
Give ‘Dr Google’ Break – You no longer have to self-diagnose which can be extremely dangerous. Giving the Google search engines a break can help you to reduce your fears of what you probably don’t have. Getting an immediate appointment with an online doc is better than self-diagnosing.
Security and Privacy – Telemedicine clinics comply with HIPAA laws so that you can be assured your medical records are safe and cannot be sold, transferred, or leaked anywhere without your permission as it relates to your health. It’s all kept confidential and private. Most telehealth providers also provide you access to all your medical records they have on you. To obtain them, it can be as simple as logging in and printing off.
No Wasted Time – Everyone can relate to the dreaded 30 minute wait while in the examining room, twiddling fingers and waiting to be seen. Your doc is pressed for time and when he finally makes it to your room, you’ve got all but five minutes to explain your story, be diagnosed, advised, and then treated. With an online consultation, you have every minute of your scheduled appointment time to discuss your concerns. That full 15 or 30 minute appointment may be the difference between being heard and appropriately treated or having to reschedule for next week because the wait time is too long.
Cost-effective – This can be on both your part and the doctor’s part too. For an online doc, they may only have minimal staffing expenses and possibly very little overhead costs. This leaves more appointment time for you and more money in your wallet. You’re also not spending travel costs to the doctor, missing out on wages from lost time at work, paying for child care, meeting high deductibles, or paying overwhelming co-pays. It can also significantly reduce the costs involved with ICU hospital stays. You can find that getting a doctor appointment online can be as inexpensive as $39 a month.
Avoid the ER – Many people often end up in the Emergency Room or at the Urgent Care Clinic because they didn’t have access to a primary care physician. Does this sound like you? It’s the most expensive and least efficient option to be seen if you’re not in a life-threatening state. It costs outrageously more than seeing a doctor online, you lose a lot more time just waiting around, and you’re taking up critical time that nurses and physicians can be spending on those who truly need the services of the ER. If you’re worried about the quality and satisfaction of care, you might be relieved to know that studies show that patients seen by telemedicine ER doctors and nurses who work at a designated ER location with telemedicine technology are taken care of faster and are just as satisfied as if they were in a traditional ER. But, if you have a true emergency, please contact your local emergency services to be seen immediately.
Second Opinion – Sometimes when you’ve seen all the physicians in your area that just haven’t been able to give you a diagnosis, you might just want a second second-opinion. Being seen online can give you access to a plethora of telehealth doctors that can take a fresh look with new eyes to your condition.
Long Term Benefits – There are some long term benefits of telemedicine such as 24 hour constant monitoring of ICU patients, those with chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart problems, the tailoring of disease prevention programs to reduce health disparities among different races, as well as improving effectiveness of pediatric evaluations.
Disadvantages of Online Doctors Consultations
Despite all of the conveniences and benefits to going the way of the telehealth path, there are some cons that do play a role. These are:
Insufficient Assessment – Although interfacing can be limitless when it comes to how you can use telemedicine, there is the obvious drawback that you can’t be physically touched, felt, and prodded at by your physician or nurse. This can possibly create some cracks for indistinct symptoms to go unnoticed.
Technical Glitches – Electrical, wireless, and internet glitches all have the same thing in common – inconvenience. Because you need a reliable connection to be able to text, email, two-way video chat, or download relatable content, you could be susceptible to an interrupted consultation by bad weather, a late utility bill, or local power outage. You should try to talk to an online doctor when your connection is as reliable as possible.
Access to Technology – Of course for telemedicine to be effective, you need to assume that the patient has access to telemedicine technology. Since telemedicine has proven to be especially beneficial for remote care, it’s assumed that patients in rural areas have access to internet, electrical, and wireless technology to be able to text, email, call, video chat, and download apps or content needed to get communicate and transfer medical records. Without this access, you can’t take advantage of all the benefits telehealth has to offer.
Breakdown of Relationship – It’s assumed by skeptics that telehealth can depersonalize the patient/doctor relationship since you’re not being seen in person and it can also breakdown trust. This is a misconception. If you’re uneasy about video conferencing with a physician online for your primary care, only use it to supplement your health care for those times that it can be difficult to be seen in person. You can also integrate different types and levels of telehealth technology into your existing relationship with your doctor.
Secondly, it can actually build a better patient/doctor relationship since communication can be improved between the two of you. Example: thanks to instant access to email, you can attach a copy of your MRI or Xray and expedite the transmission of medical records. Snail-mail is outdated, and you don’t have to go through the hassle of tracking your own records down and making sure it got sent. You take control of your health and how much of a relationship you want with an online doc.
Physician Reluctance – One other disadvantage mainly relates to the reluctancy of physicians in using forms of telemedicine. Although there is already quite an array of telemedicine providers, there are still yet more to get on board. Like previously mentioned, the United States has been slow to fully embrace it and it’s still in the early works today, but it’s gaining momentum. Already, telemedicine technology is helping doctors to efficiently treat patients, and more doctors plan to use smartphone technology in cohesion with their patients.
These are the most common disadvantages put forward for the use of telemedicine and many experts, physicians and patients feel that they are outweighed by the benefits of telemedicine.
Limitations of Online Medical Advice
There are some things about the face to face appointment that you just can’t replace with an online doctor’s appointment. The most obvious is that you’re not able to fully evaluate the quality of your online doctor to be able to trust the medical advice. This can be true in person too. But, at least when you’re there in a doctor’s office and meeting them in person, you can scope them out and get a feel for whether you like and trust them.
Another limitation is: the online advice is only as good as the amount of medical information the doctor has on you. If you want solid, absolute medical treatment, the doctor will need access to your current diagnostic reports which comes from an in-person visit from, most likely, your primary care physician. Otherwise, the online medical advice is just that – advice.
When is it Suitable to See a Web Doctor? When is it not?
Telemedicine is making its way into many aspects of the health industry, including the ER, ICU, chronic disease management, disease prevention, and even for the treatment and care for minor illnesses and injuries. But, how do you know when you should Google for an online doc or when you really should have someone drive you to the walk-in clinic? Some key elements to consider to help you decide if it’s suitable to see an online doc are…
✓ A non-life-threatening or non-emergency situation.
✓ If you can’t see your primary doctor sooner than you’d like.
✓ If you’d rather pay significantly cheaper costs than heading to the ER or urgent care due to your low acuity condition.
✓ If you just want some advice on what you should do about a medical condition you have or are experiencing.
Some of the common conditions that are suitable to seek a doctor appointment online are:
- Allergies including Hives, itchy eyes, itchy throat
- Bites, stings
- Body aches
- Cold symptoms: cough, fever, headaches, fever, nasal congestion
- Medication refills, online prescriptions
- Mild lacerations
- Pink eye
- Sinus infections
- Skin infections
- Strains, sprains
- Urinary tract infection symptoms
Online doctors can provide counsel on some, all, or even more of the above health conditions and treatment options such as online weight loss programs. In doing so, some of these conditions will need some further evaluation. How high is your temperature? How long have you had diarrhea? The doctor might have more related questions and may be able to provide very helpful advice and you can even get prescription online. On the other hand, without being physically able to take tests at that exact moment, you could possibly be advised to see your primary physician or even to head straight to the emergency room.
If you’re unsure, here are some circumstances that you should definitely skip the online chat session and seek in-person care.
× A true emergency condition.
× Depression and mental illness that require in-person check-ups.
× If you need access to controlled substances, such as hGH, or any medications that violate an online doctor’s policies and medications that require in-person check-ups and monitoring.
× Conditions that require in-person visits and monitoring such as Erectile dysfunction and hair loss. The medications involved with these conditions also require you to be under a physician’s care because of the side effects.
× If you need long-term or maintenance prescriptions to medications for a condition.
Choosing an Online Doctor
Navigating the web for a doctor can seem a little overwhelming. Traditionally, you may have found your current primary doctor from a family member’s recommendation or even another physician’s referral. But, when you’re surfing the web, you may not have those recommendations from anybody close by. Some helpful tips to keep in mind when you’re shopping around to find an online telemedicine clinic and doctor are:
♦ Look for Accreditations – You want to ensure that you’re going to get expert advice from a licensed and qualified medical professional. You’ll also want access to info that ensures that the site is in adherence with laws and regulations currently in place to protect you and your rights in regards to using telemedicine. This should include having access to licensing, credentials, and qualifications on the provider.
♦ Expect assurances that all your information is going to be kept private and confidential.
♦ Read the “About Us” Page – the more you know about what the clinic offers, who they staff, and their accreditations will give you sense of whether you’d enjoy your experience with them or not. You might also want to check out their ethical principles which could be stated in their mission statement.
♦ You’ll want to know before hand whether or not they have a patient portal where you can access your medical records at any time.
♦ If you want access to several doctors, you’ll want to go with a site that offers a network of participating doctors instead of just one.
♦ You might want the convenience of being able to choose or change your doctor at any requested time, and/or the convenience of being able to schedule your own appointments.
♦ You might also want to have access to any information about the site’s affiliations and if they have any direct relationships with organizations that sell medication and other products. Knowing this could help you weed out any biased organizations that have a conflict of interest with the health experts you’re seeking advice from.
♦ Read the “Testimonials” – Although there will be a lot of positive testimonials on the actual website, you could also search for reviews posted by others online about the providers you’re thinking about using.
♦ Read the “FAQ’s” – This page will give you a lot of information about whether or not they can help you and if they have everything you’re looking for in a telemedicine provider.
♦ Look for the option to be able to leave your feedback and your opinion about your experience, especially if you have any complaints and how they can address them.
♦ A good, reputable site should also provide you with general information about your current condition or specific factors that are related to your online visit so that you can make well-informed decisions.
Once you’ve decided on a reputable organization that you’re willing to give a try, the following process is pretty much the same across the board. You will typically enroll in the company’s registration. Here, you’ll need to reveal specifics about your identity, your medical condition, medical history, and payment information. Next, you’ll be able to select a participating telemedicine doctor from the network list and start your virtual consultation. This can be done from a computer, tablet, smartphone, and even smartwatch. You can opt for secure texting, voice, or video.
Sometimes during your consultation, there’s just no getting around the fact that there might be the need for lab work and tests to be done. This might be a snag in the whole telemedicine concept, or is it?
DIY Lab Tests Online – No Doctor Needed
Getting to the doctor’s office can be hard enough, but it can also be the easy part when you’re considering the fact that you’ll need to get some lab work done as well. It doesn’t make it any easier when you’re up against expensive co-pays, long wait times, scheduling obstacles, your doctor thinks you don’t need lab work, or you’re too embarrassed be seen for your condition. But, there is a way around all these encumbrances – order your own lab tests online.
You don’t need a doctor to order one for you. You can get your own lab work done if you wanted to check your testosterone levels, confirm pregnancy, or even to see if you have the flu. There are also many other lab tests that you can order yourself without even having to step foot into the doctor’s office once. If that sounds relieving, be prepared for how much simpler it can get from here.
The Process of Ordering Lab Tests Online
The process is actually very simple. If you’re already part of a telemedicine organization that partners with a laboratory services company, they can conveniently order up the appropriate tests for you and send the orders to your nearest contracted patient services center. All that’s left is for you to show up. You and your telehealth doctor can view the test results through the patient portal, smartphone app, or whatever secure platform the organization provides.
But, if your telemedicine organization doesn’t collaborate with laboratory services, it’s up to you to get your own tests, and it’s still a very easy process. A typical online experience looks like this:
- Find a reputable or recommended site that offers lab tests to be done online.
- Select the tests that you want done. This page should also tell you how much each test costs and give some general information on the test.
- Like a shopping experience, you’ll need to add your selected items to the cart where you can see a total amount of the tests you’re purchasing the orders for.
- Next, you’ll be able to choose the patient service center location closest to you.
- You’ll now have to enter your identification information.
- Pay for the orders using the appropriate payment method.
- You will get a confirmation email, perhaps even a copy of the order or a lab requisition form. Print it off and take it to your appointment.
Types of Labs Tests You Can Order
A full array of different types of lab tests are available for you to order when you try your hand online.
The different types of tests can be:
- Cancer blood tests
- General health
- Mens or Women’s general panel tests
- Pregnancy and related
- Heart disease
- Cholesterol and lipid
- Comprehensive metabolic and thyroid tests
- Sexually Transmitted Infections
You might prefer to just pay for one test, say, a Urinalysis (UA). You might want to get a comprehensive health screening that has one fee, but multiple tests. Or, you might enjoy the flexibility to order and combine as many tests as you want; you could probably get a package or a discounted price too.
Some of the most common lab tests performed are:
- Blood tests such as CBC, blood enzymes, blood chemistry, and related tests for heart disease
- UA (Urinalysis)
- Flu tests
- Testosterone level tests
- Vitamin or mineral deficiency tests
- Luteinizing hormone level tests
- C-reactive protein test
Each online organization has their own list of orders that they offer. They can range in cost from as little as $17 for some tests and as expensive as $280 and upwards for others.
Advantages of Online Lab and Blood Tests
Whether you need a simple UA for a job application or a comprehensive health profile screening for your own peace of mind, there are many benefits to being able to get your own lab work done through an online organization.
You don’t need a doctor – This is the first and most obvious benefit since you don’t have to go through the doctor’s office to get one. Just being able to get to the lab means scheduling an appointment with the doctor, waiting for said appointment, and then going through the needed motions of having to get there; convincing the doctor you need the work done, waiting for them to send the order through, and then waiting for the scheduled lab appointment. At this rate, it’s about another three weeks away and with certain blood tests, you need to catch the culprit in the act – get the lab work done as soon as possible while you’re experiencing the symptoms. You can skip the doctors visit, order up your lab work, and then refer it to your doctor for review and diagnosis.
It’s affordable – You can see exactly what you’re paying for and how much it costs. There’s no dealing with insurance and what’s allowed and what’s not. The costs of the orders are deliberately priced at affordable rates. It’s no myth that doctor-ordered lab tests are overpriced and they end up costing either you or your insurance provider more money than if you had ordered a blood test online yourself. You don’t need to go through your insurance, and this is especially helpful if you don’t have insurance to begin with. Also, you don’t have to pay for tests that you don’t need. Sometimes a doc can order up a plethora of inappropriate tests even if you didn’t need all of them done.
Reduce repeat testing – When you order your online lab work, you have access to your orders and test results right there anytime you want. You can also print them off for a hardcopy or save to your hard-drive or flashdrive. If a physician asks you for lab work to be done, you can send them a copy of what you have. This can reduce repeat testing and over-ordering of tests that aren’t indicated, which is a big issue in the healthcare industry.
Privacy – You can order your lab work online without anyone else knowing. You can also send in a money order to come lab test providers to further ensure anonymity. Your test results can also be digitally sent to you which further enhances the privacy aspect.
Disadvantages of Online Lab and Blood Tests
Online lab and blood tests are very convenient, easy to get, and affordable. But, it’s okay to have mixed feelings about them. Here are the disadvantages that can be addressed with being aware of them and being cautious in who you choose to order from.
Tendency to self-diagnose – The problem with getting your own lab work done without a doctor’s order is the tendency for people to think that they suddenly have the education and experience to correctly self-diagnose and treat – a case of the “know-it-all” syndrome. You shouldn’t try to self-diagnose or interpret the results by yourself. It’s recommended to send them on to your physician for review and to discuss the best treatment plans available.
Misunderstandings – Results should be interpreted by a doctor, simply because it’s extremely easy to misunderstand and misinterpret them. For example: some online tests are screenings which can show a positive result for, say, prostate antigens, but it doesn’t mean you have cancer. It’s easy to see that you may misunderstand the positive prostate antigens for actually having cancer. With further evaluation by a physician, you can have the results explained to you in a way you can understand with the most accurate diagnosis possible.
No Insurance Coverage– Most online lab orders are out-of-pocket expenses that your insurance won’t cover. This can be a concern if you already have insurance benefits, and you don’t want to have to pay for them yourself. There are few online lab test providers that can bill your insurance, but law makers have still got policies and regulations in the works to see how this can be managed. On the other hand, more times than enough, you end up paying the difference for lab work that your insurance company didn’t pay the full cost for anyway.
Choosing a Lab Test Provider
Choosing a lab test provider is just as important as choosing an online health care provider. Some helpful features to look out for when carefully selecting which organization you want to order from are:
♦ Look for the HIPAA notice on these sites to be assured that they adhere with policies regarding the privacy and confidentiality of your medical records.
♦ Ensure you first have access to a list of contracted patient service centers near you to determine if that location is convenient or not for you. Secondly, you’ll want to look for recognized lab organizations and any certifications for the lab to ensure you’ll be going to a regulated facility that is in compliance with medical standards.
♦ Assurance that all your payment information will be fully encrypted by secure technology for full privacy protection.
♦ You also want access to information about the organization, who operates it, it’s legality etc.
♦ Look for any affiliations that the organization has. This can help assure you that you’re dealing with a legitimate business.
♦ You want access to the organization’s contact and location information as well as feedback options. If you ever need to contact them for something, you want to know that you can get a hold of them in a timely and convenient manner.
♦ You want access to comprehensive information about what you’re purchasing, what to do next, and what to expect with the quality of care from the patient services center.
♦ Look to see if they have general information or links to articles to self-educate yourself about the process, testing, or even a glossary.
What to Do with Your Results
Online lab tests are extremely convenient to order up yourself, especially if you’re wanting one-time information about your general health or low-acuity condition. But, it does often lead people to self-diagnose or interpret test results that physicians are trained to do.
Even if the results seem clear to you, the problem with trying to interpret your test results by yourself can result in misunderstandings and wrong diagnosis that can lead to lots of confusion and even unnecessary stress and worry. There is always possibility of false-negatives or false-positive results.
To be on the prudent side, your lab results should always be shared with your doctor, whether it’s at an in-person visit or with an online physician. If you ordered lab results based off your online doc’s recommendations, you should still follow up with them and send over your results. Don’t throw them in the junk drawer to be forgotten about and miss out on peace of mind. Dealing with the results can be as simple as taking picture of the results and emailing them over to your online physician for review.
When Should You See a Doctor?
If you’ve had lab work done, you should always send them into the doctor – your primary physician or the preferred online one. Your doctor knows how to interpret results and can explain them to you in a way that you can understand, and can give advice and treatment options that relate to your condition or overall health and well-being. If you skip seeing the doc, you don’t have this valuable information to make well-informed decisions about your health care. Your doc can also recommend appropriate guidelines about how often you should check cholesterol levels, testosterone levels, or any test for a chronic condition you may have that you’d find comfort in from being able to order lab tests yourself.
A Healthier Future
Telemedicine has come a long way from its beginnings, and there have been extensive studies evaluating how helpful it can be for both yourself and the experts of the health care industry. When modern day technology is enabling you to have better access to health care, no matter where you live, it’s so convenient you have to say “Yes”. When it’s reducing costs and promising improved affordability despite health insurance status, it’s worth giving it a try. And, when it’s putting you in control of your own health, telemedicine is a promise to a better and healthier future – your future.