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Telehealth vs In-Person Visits: Pros and Cons of Different Types of Care

By Dr. Yadira Soler, MD on July 15, 2022

Patient and doctor telehealth visit

While Telehealth services were available before COVID-19, the pandemic became a necessary catalyst for both providers and patients to gain more experience and comfort with remote care. Today, as most offices have reopened and in-person visits normalize again, patients face hybrid services that offer choices between a traditional office visit and a remote one.  

Telehealth offers ultimate convenience - especially for patients with chronic health and mobility issues who need to check in regularly and refill prescriptions. It’s also more accessible and affordable for people in rural areas who live farther away from specialized care; two more reasons for its skyrocketing popularity.   

Yet as convenient as it is, telehealth isn’t always the right choice. Traditional face-to-face visits are ultimately more thorough when patients require physical exams or assessments and of course, more appropriate for serious issues. 

So how do you choose the right path when it comes to seeking care? The right decision starts by knowing the difference between traditional office visits and telehealth appointments. Knowing how they differ can help you navigate the right choices for both routine and urgent needs. Here are several differences to consider when you are choosing between office visits and telehealth: 

Does my doctor offer telehealth services?  

According to the COVID-19 Telehealth Impact Study most patients want telemedicine to remain an option. 79% of patients were very satisfied with the care received during their last telehealth visit and 73% will continue using telehealth services in the future. Physicians feel good about the option too. 68% of physicians said they were personally motivated to increase its use in their practice. However, not every primary care physician or healthcare system offers telemedicine appointments. Proactively call your primary physician before you need an appointment and ask if they provide telehealth services.  

Does my insurance cover telehealth services? 

The good news is that most plans do offer some coverage. According to a survey of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) members, about 92% of Medicare Advantage plan holders and 94% of private payers, including most large employers, benefit from telemedicine coverage, while 93% of Medicaid-managed care plans are either considering offering telemedicine services or currently offering coverage. Proactively call your insurance provider and determine what your benefits are before you make an appointment. If telemedicine is not covered, a telehealth visit may cost around $50 to $80, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. 

Are time and travel issues? 

One of the most popular reasons patients choose telehealth is convenience. Telehealth appointments create huge savings in both time and travel expenses. In many areas, getting set up with a new primary care physician can take longer than a month. Time wasted in a waiting room drops to zero and of course there is no travel. This easy access is one of the main reasons telehealth is booming in rural communities. According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 65% of nonmetropolitan counties do not have a psychiatrist, and nearly half do not have a psychologist. If you’re trying to set up a new provider or travel is an issue for you, telehealth provides a faster option.  

Is my health issue appropriate for a virtual visit? 

Telemedicine should never replace an in person visit for an emergency or issues that require detailed physical exams. That said, there are numerous health issues that are appropriate for a remote appointment. According to physicians surveyed in the COVID-19 Impact Study, here are the top five services they want to offer in a post pandemic world: 

  • Chronic disease management 73% 

  • Medical management 64% 

  • Care coordination 60% 

  • Preventative care 53% 

  • Hospital or emergency department follow-up 48% 

Are my issues confidential in nature? Will the visit be live or recorded?  

Even in person, healthcare is a confidential service between patient and provider, so it’s natural to wonder how secure your data is if it’s heading into the cloud. You’ll want to find out if your visit is live (synchronous) or recorded (asynchronous). You’ll also want to ask about what steps the provider takes to secure data confidentiality such as encrypted data transmission. So far, most patients aren’t letting security concerns hold them back. According to the COVID-19 Impact Survey, 84% were confident their personal information was secure and private during the visit. 

Do I have the devices I’ll need to complete the visit?  

Telehealth happens on technology platforms built to facilitate it. Providers may invite patients to login to a specific portal for a live (synchronous) consult, or upload photos and videos for an asynchronous consult. For most appointments all you’ll need is a camera enabled smartphone, tablet or computer. If the telehealth appointments are for ongoing conditions, your physician may have you wear devices that remotely monitor and report important information like blood sugar, blood pressure and sleep patterns. 

Telehealth is here to stay as its promise goes beyond convenience as we simultaneously face the health demands of an aging population and a shortage of healthcare professionals. Getting comfortable with telehealth and proactively understanding how it differs from traditional office visits before you need to see a provider will save you time, money and stress.