How to Make the Most of a Telehealth Doctor Visit

Illustration for article titled How to Make the Most of a Telehealth Doctor Visit

Photo: Iryna Imago (Shutterstock)

Though telemedicine has been around for years, it has gone from being a lesser-known healthcare option to a lifeline for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you wanted to do a virtual check-in with your doctor to ask about potential COVID symptoms, or your kid somehow acquired pink eye during lockdown and they needed to see a physician about it, telemedicine has become far more mainstream over the course of just a few months.

Who has access to telemedicine?

Unfortunately, virtual doctor visits require health insurance. But the good news is, even if you have the most basic of Obamacare plans, most of those come with telehealth benefits. To find out what you’re entitled to with your plan, check your insurance provider’s website, or better yet, sign into your health insurance account for specifics on your benefits. Here, they’ll tell you the telemedicine provider they’re affiliated with and how to schedule an appointment. You may need to fill out the usual personal information forms again on the telehealth site, so it’ll take a minute the first time you use the platform.

Once you’re signed in, you usually get the option of either scheduling a virtual appointment for the future, or joining an online waiting room to see the next available doctor. The wait times can vary significantly. Back in April, I had two telehealth doctor visits. I was in the “virtual waiting room” for close to two hours the first time, but for my next visit later in the month, it was only a 10-minute wait.

How to make the most of your virtual visit

Before you sign on for a telehealth session with a doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner, there are a few things that you’re going to want to prepare ahead of time. The doctor’s time is valuable, and so is yours, this will help you make the most of it.

Set up the technology ahead of time

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning that before you even sign in for a virtual visit, you should make sure that whatever device you’re going to use is working properly. On top of that, Dr. Sachin Nagrani, medical director at Heal (a telemedicine provider), recommends doing a test of your camera and microphone on your phone, tablet or computer ahead of time.

Find a good spot

If there’s one part of your home that has a better wifi signal than other parts, try to have your appointment there. Nagrani also suggests going somewhere with good lighting (not that you need to hook up a ring light, but it helps if the doctor can actually see you) and that’s quiet. And if you live with other people, you may want to find somewhere private for the virtual visit.

Take your temperature

If you’re seeing a doctor about any type of flu, infection or virus, they’re going to ask you if you have a temperature, Dr. Abe Malkin, founder and medical director of Concierge MD LA tells Lifehacker. Grab your thermometer and take your temperature before your visit, but also keep it handy in case the doctor wants you to take it again during your visit. If you have and are using other home monitoring equipment like a blood pressure reader or pulse oximeter, take your own vital signs ahead of your virtual visit, Malkin advises.

Report any medications you’ve been taking

While in some cases, you can arrange to have virtual visits with your family doctor, if you’re going through a service like the one provided by your health insurance, chances are you’ll get a random (though qualified) doctor on the other end. This means that they won’t personally know your medical history, including the medications you’re currently taking.

To prepare for this, make a list of all your prescription medication (including the dosages) before the virtual visit. In addition, Malkin says it’s important to also mention any over-the-counter medicines you’ve been taking to treat yourself. “These are very important to establish the treatment needed,” he adds.

Make a list of your symptoms

This is something you should be doing for in-person appointments too, but you should definitely go into your telemedicine visit with a list of your symptoms, Nagrani tells Lifehacker. Don’t think you’re just going to remember them and be able to rattle them off—when you only have a few minutes with a busy doctor (during a pandemic), it can feel like a high-pressure situation.

Besides just making a list, Malkin says you should also be able to tell the doctor about the progression of your symptoms and how long they’ve lasted. Because the doctor isn’t able to examine you in person, it’s especially important to tell them what’s going on with your body and why you’re seeking their help in the first place.

Make a list of questions for the doctor

In addition to listing your symptoms, also have a list of questions for the doctor prepared ahead of the virtual visit. Why are you calling? What do you want a medical professional to weigh in on? Be as specific as possible to give the doctor the most information possible.

Take notes during the appointment

Keep that pen and paper handy, because there’re more to write down. “Take notes on what the doctor advises so you’re clear on it and don’t forget after the call,” Nagrani explains. Even if you think you’re going to remember the directions and specific recommended dosages, write them down anyway as a backup.

Not everything can be diagnosed and treated over the phone, so the doctor may recommend that you come into the office, or even go to the emergency room in certain situations. (Also, if it’s an actual emergency, telemedicine isn’t your best bet.) Doctors are able to prescribe medications following a virtual visit, if that’s something you need.