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Telehealth vs. telemedicine

How healthcare professionals use technology to connect to patients — and each other.

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Using technology to treat patients isn’t a new concept, but it’s definitely becoming more mainstream. Nearly half of American doctors now conduct consultations with the help of telemedicine, according to a 2018 survey by Merritt Hawkins — and that number has grown with social distancing guidelines in place.

While “telehealth” and “telemedicine” are used interchangeably, there are subtle differences between the two terms. They both use technology to deliver healthcare at a distance, but telehealth is a much broader term.

What’s the difference between telehealth and telemedicine?

Telemedicine is technically a subset of telehealth. It refers to remote clinical services, such as virtual consults with healthcare providers.

Telehealth encompasses anything to do with virtual healthcare. Remote doctor-patient consults fall under that umbrella, along with training for healthcare professionals, administrative meetings, continuing medical education and services offered by online pharmacists and social workers.

Key features of telehealth

Telehealth harnesses technology to help doctors connect with patients and other healthcare professionals. It can be broken down into four main modalities, according to the Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP).

ModalityDefinitionExample of this modality in action
Live videoA real-time, two-way interaction between a healthcare professional and a patient, caregiver or another provider using videoconferencing software.A patient books a virtual appointment with their doctor, or a healthcare professional schedules a virtual training with their peers.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM)The use of digital technologies to collect medical data and securely transmit it to healthcare providers.A patient wears a heart rate monitor and sends the reading to their doctor, who analyzes it from their office.
Store-and-forwardThe transmission of medical images, pictures, videos or text using a secure digital platform, such as emails or text messages. With this method, there’s no real-time interaction — the patient or healthcare professional records and stores the data on their device before sending it to the other party.A patient emails a picture of their aching tooth to their dentist, or a dentist sends a pre-recorded video explaining how to insert a retainer correctly.
Mobile health or mHealthThe use of smartphones and tablets to transmit health information.A pharmacy texts a patient to let them know their prescription is ready for pick-up.

What is telehealth?

How does telemedicine work?

With telemedicine, the doctor relies on technology to provide patient care at a distance.

Healthcare professionals typically use secure audio and video platforms such as Zoom, Skype or FaceTime to consult with their patient. Patients can also log into online portals — like Doxy.me — to schedule appointments, check on the status of prescriptions and upload documents and images.

Doctors and specialists may use telemedicine to:

  • Diagnose and treat patients via videoconference.
  • Prescribe medication during a video consult.
  • Manage patients’ chronic conditions via video calls, phone calls or text messages.
  • Conduct post-op follow-ups via video calls, phone calls or text message.
  • Send and receive patient reports.
  • Receive digital images, such as photos of a patient’s rash or bruise.
  • Send medical images, such as X-rays.
  • Collect and transmit vital signs, like the patient’s height and weight.

What conditions can telemedicine help with?

Thanks to advanced technologies, healthcare professionals can use telemedicine across many specialties — from dermatology and dentistry to physical therapy and counseling.

You can get help with a range of conditions and services, including:

  • Allergies
  • Anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns
  • Asthma and respiratory conditions
  • Back pain
  • Colds, flus and sore throats
  • COVID-19
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive issues, like diarrhea and inflammation
  • Earaches
  • Fevers
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Heartburn and acid reflux
  • Hypertension
  • Infections and urgent care conditions, like urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • Insect bites
  • Nausea, vomiting and food poisoning
  • Post-surgical follow-ups
  • Pregnancy
  • Prescription refills
  • Sexual health issues, including birth control and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Skin conditions, such as rashes, eczema and psoriasis
  • Sprains, strains, swelling and sports injuries
  • Toothaches

What can’t be treated using telemedicine?

Telemedicine isn’t suitable for emergencies. If you’ve been in an accident or are experiencing life-threatening symptoms, call 911 immediately.

These conditions can’t be treated with telemedicine:

  • Anaphylaxis — i.e. a severe allergic reaction
  • Chest pain and tightness
  • Head injuries
  • Shortness of breath
  • Signs of a stroke, such as facial drooping
  • Unexplained bleeding

Preparing for a virtual visit with your doctor

Your doctor might give you the option of speaking over the phone or using video. Either way, try to find a quiet, well-lit space to take the call and ask your household members not to disturb you during your appointment.

It’s also a good idea to check your insurance coverage and copay before your appointment.

If you decide to go with a video call, follow these steps to make sure your appointment runs smoothly:

  • Set up an account on the digital platform your doctor uses, if you don’t already have one — e.g. Zoom or Skype.
  • Test your Wi-Fi connection.
  • Charge your smartphone, tablet or computer, or plug it in to a power outlet.
  • Put your devices on silent and turn off notifications.
  • Note your symptoms and when they began, as well as any other information that may help your doctor to diagnose and treat your condition.
  • Prepare any questions you may have for your doctor.

The benefits of telemedicine

Telemedicine is a convenient and affordable alternative to in-person care — and it’s proved to be invaluable during the pandemic.

It also has these benefits:

  • Provides accessible healthcare to those who live in rural or isolated communities, and people with disabilities or limited mobility.
  • Connects patients with specialists who don’t practice locally.
  • Allows patients to book appointments outside of typical office hours.
  • Supports patients to manage chronic health conditions at home.
  • Strengthens communication between healthcare providers and patients.
  • Helps healthcare professionals to coordinate with each other and share information.

The drawbacks of telemedicine

While telemedicine has made it easier and cheaper for people to get the care they need, it’s still evolving — and it has its limitations.

You might run into these issues:

  • Your doctor may not have access to your full medical history or treatment plan.
  • Your doctor may require a lab test or physical exam to diagnose you properly.
  • You or your doctor may miss out on nonverbal cues during a phone consult.
  • You or your doctor may have a spotty internet connection or outdated software.
  • Your insurance may not cover telemedicine.

How much does telemedicine cost?

The average cost of a telemedicine consult is $79, according to a Health Affairs study.

To compare, doctor office visits cost an average of $146, while emergency department visits set patients back an average of $1,734.

Does insurance cover telemedicine?

It depends. The biggest players in the game — including Aetna and Cigna — cover telemedicine. But the services you’ll be reimbursed for and how much you’ll get back comes down to your health insurance policy, and where you live.

This is because telemedicine coverage is affected by state and federal law as well as individual insurance company programs, according to the CCHP.

How different types of insurance treat telemedicine

Private health insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid have their own rules and regulations around telemedicine.

The information below is general. For the most accurate answer, call your insurer’s benefits department and ask about their telemedicine reimbursement policies.

Type of insurance coverageDoes it cover telemedicine?
Private health insuranceMajor health insurance companies cover telemedicine, and many expanded their networks in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).

The list includes:

  • Aetna
  • Anthem
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield Association
  • Humana
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • Molina Healthcare Inc.
  • United Healthcare

Most group health insurance policies include telemedicine for free or at a low cost. This means you may be able to access services like Doctor on Demand or Teladoc, and your employer will subsidize the cost.

MedicareTo qualify for telemedicine, patients must live in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). These are typically remote, rural and low population density areas, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration.

Medicare doesn’t cover video visits that are initiated from home. To be covered, patients must first go to a designated healthcare facility, where the local provider can connect them to a speciality using telemedicine technology.

MedicaidEvery state’s Medicaid program offers some coverage for telemedicine, but the guidelines vary.

For example, California reimburses video consults for a wide range of medical specialties, but New Jersey only reimburses mental health consults. And some states allow you to call a doctor from your home or workplace, while others require you to go to a healthcare facility.

How the coronavirus has changed telemedicine

To align with social distancing guidelines, many health insurance companies have increased access to telemedicine consults. Some have also authorized early medication refills so patients can have a 60- to 90-day supply of their prescriptions.

Health insurance and the coronavirus

Bottom line

Telemedicine falls under the telehealth umbrella, and it complements in-person services. For patients, it’s a convenient way to access healthcare, especially if your needs are basic or you can’t easily travel to a clinic or hospital.

Most private health insurers now include telemedicine in their coverage, making it a cheaper alternative to office visits. But its scope is limited, and it’s not suitable for emergencies.

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