There are quite a few misconceptions floating around about telemedicine. During a year when so much of our lives moved online, I still find patients who are surprised to learn their healthcare can be tended to there, too. One of their most common questions is: what can telemedicine treat?
In some ways, the answer is simple. Telemedicine can effectively treat most common medical conditions. In fact, with a few regulatory exceptions, its capabilities are mostly limited by technology. That’s good news for the future.
Let’s dive into what telemedicine can treat, what’s excluded from the list, and how I see it evolving over the next few years.
What can telemedicine treat?
So, when we say telemedicine providers can treat most common medical conditions, what do we mean? HealthJoy members are most frequently treated for sinus infections, upper respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, and skin conditions. These are perfect examples of the issues telemedicine can treat quickly, effectively, and without travel.
In general, I encourage patients to think of telemedicine as a perfect first stop when you’re not sure where else to go. A timely example is a question I think we’ve all encountered this year: is it allergies, a cold, the flu, or COVID-19? For most patients, it’s hard to parse these symptoms. During an online medical consultation, a medical professional can help you determine if what you’re experiencing warrants a COVID-19 test or another kind of follow-up. Starting with this step helps you avoid exposure from an in-person visit, and just generally saves a lot of time and effort.
Even if you prefer an in-person visit with your primary care provider, there may be times when they aren’t immediately available. Think of the parent whose child is sick late at night or on a weekend. Telemedicine can help you decide on the next steps when you can’t get in to see your primary care provider and want to avoid going straight to urgent care or the emergency room.
Telemedicine’s medical exclusions
Just as a Zoom meeting isn’t suited for every social event, telemedicine can’t treat every medical situation.
First, while telemedicine can help you avoid an unnecessary trip to the ER, it isn’t appropriate for life-threatening emergencies. If you fear you’re having a heart attack or stroke, or any other life-threatening emergency, you should head straight to the emergency room.
Second, there are regulatory considerations: online medical providers can prescribe many medications, but they can’t prescribe controlled substances, like opioids or the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) treatment Adderall.
Finally, there are a few conditions that can’t be effectively diagnosed via phone or video. The most common example I see is ear infections. As a parent, I certainly wish we could find a way to virtually diagnose your little one’s ear infection and get them the relief they need. But this is one of a handful of conditions that, for the time being, has to be diagnosed in person after getting a good look at the eardrum. Luckily, I think this situation is one where we’ll soon see some exciting advancements.
What will telemedicine treat in the future?
In the future, I think we’re going to see a lot of advancements in at-home diagnostics, testing, and treatment that will make telemedicine even more useful for the average person and their family. We have already seen telemedicine platforms leverage phone cameras to be able to diagnose skin conditions and rashes. Building off the ear infection example, there are tools that can guide parents to use an otoscope phone camera attachment to capture an image of the eardrum and send it to the physician. There are other tools that allow a virtual listen of how your heart sounds and traces the rhythm to detect conditions like atrial fibrillation.
The next step will be to increase access to these types of tools so they are readily available at home when you need them. For example, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Showcase, we saw developments in at-home monitoring for sleep quality, heart health, and even dementia. I’m also excited about the development of handheld ultrasound devices and advancements in cloud technology that will allow doctors to remotely monitor patients using these insights. Another area we can look to see advancements in is home testing capabilities, which have absolutely exploded over the last year in response to the COVID-19 crisis. More clinicians are working with at-home tests, and more companies are providing innovative solutions to expand in-home testing. I think we can expect to see much more innovation in terms of what telemedicine can treat in the very near future.
So, to wrap it all up, telemedicine can treat any non-life-threatening medical condition for which a clinician’s guidance would be helpful. Telemedicine is a great first-line option that can often save you time, money, and hassle over an in-person visit.