Are Telehealth Visits Safe?

April 4, 2021

As technology advances into the twenty-first century, telehealth visits are becoming more popular. In the post-COVID age, it is becoming safer to see a doctor from the comfort of your own home than it is to go in person. 

Telehealth visits are safer because they're conducted by the same professionals that own medical offices. Telehealth visits are protected by HIPAA privacy laws and usually address minor medical conditions easily and safely assessed through remote technology. They also don't require you to come into an office and potentially be exposed to other sick patients. 

Telehealth visits may seem foreign if you've never had one before, but they're easier to make and keep than a traditional office visit. Please keep reading to learn more about telehealth visits and how safe they are. 

Telehealth Visits are Safe

Telehealth visits are safe for the majority of medical patients. The main cause of telehealth visits becoming more popular with medical offices over the past decade is that these visits take much of the burden off of the medical office's scheduling of medical appointments. 

Medical conditions can be addressed quickly and easily over a video call, sometimes easier than when addressed in person. These video calls are usually more convenient for patients and doctors alike. 

Different types of telehealth involve remote assessments from a medical professional. These types of telehealth include the following (Source: eVisit): 

  • Store-and-forward telehealth: Store-and-forward telehealth or telemedicine involves documentation in the form of photographs or other data taken by the patient and forwarded to the medical professional for an assessment. For example, a patient might forward their blood pressure readings or photographs of a skin condition to their telehealth professional. 
  • Remote monitoring: Remote monitoring is similar to store-and-forward telehealth in that it involves the patient collecting data and sending it to the medical professional for analysis. Remote monitoring is considered more convenient and cost-efficient for chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  
  • Real-time interactive services: With telehealth, a real-time interactive involves a medical appointment, much like an in-person doctor's appointment. With a virtual visit, the physician and the patient meet remotely through a video software application that allows for an audio phone call and video connection.  

Telehealth visits use technology that patients already own, such as smart devices or computers, along with an Internet connection. Telehealth visits are covered by most health insurance policies and may cost less than a traditional office visit. This means that telehealth visits don't leave patients at risk of paying out-of-pocket expenses past their usual deductible or copay in most cases. 

Telehealth Visits Can Be Safer Than Office Visits

While they don't have the centuries of credibility that in-person doctor visits might, telehealth visits can be safer in practice than office visits. Telehealth visits actively prevent many of the risks involved with in-person medical visits. What's more, if you have been deemed eligible for a telehealth visit, that means your medical condition is probably not that serious. After the visit is complete, the medical provider can always send you to a specialist or emergency room if needed. 

Telehealth May Be Equal to An In-Person Doctor's Appointment

Telehealth visits are just as safe as traditional medical appointments because they're equivalent to visiting a doctor's office. You're getting access to the same level of medical expertise. 

Telehealth visits do not represent an inferior version of "real" medicine because they're convenient and inexpensive. Telehealth visits represent a more convenient way to take advantage of healthcare from the comfort of your own home. 

Telehealth Visits Address Minor Medical Issues

Telehealth visits are generally considered safer than regular doctor's visits because they are often used to address minor medical issues. Here are some of the illnesses that are treated through telemedicine: 

These illnesses are easily treated through telehealth visits because the strongest medicine prescribed for them is typically an antibiotic. These conditions are also common enough that a doctor can easily diagnose them without the need for an in-person assessment. 

The medical conditions treated by telehealth visits are unlikely to be life-threatening. When people get sick, it is with minor contagious diseases such as norovirus or the common cold. These illnesses usually aren't dangerous but can easily be transmitted to others in a medical setting. 

Telehealth visits will refer patients for an office visit if their condition is deemed to be risky. Telemedicine professionals can assess whether a patient's condition is serious enough to warrant further physical examination via an in-office visit. 

Telehealth Visits are Medically Certified

Telehealth professionals are certified just like regular doctor's offices. Here are just a few of the medical professionals who have started incorporating more telemedicine into their daily practices: 

  • Emergency physicians
  • Nurse practitioners (NPs)
  • Physician's assistants (PAs)
  • General practitioners (GPs)
  • Psychotherapists and psychiatrists
  • Medical specialists such as radiologists and obstetricians 

In most cases, the same professionals you would be visiting in a doctor's office are consulting with you during a telehealth visit. The main difference between a telehealth visit and a traditional doctor's appointment is that you save a lot of time and money by taking advantage of telehealth options when they're available. 

Telehealth Visits While Protecting Your Privacy

Another benefit of telehealth visits for patient safety is that they protect your medical privacy, just like a routine visit to the doctor's office. Telehealth visits are conducted on encrypted software or specifically-made apps designed to keep patient records as secure as possible. 

Medically certified telehealth visits are not conducted on open software like Skype and Facebook messenger. This is to protect patient confidentiality and prevent hacking. 

Many healthcare insurance companies will also refuse to reimburse healthcare visits that have not been conducted on approved encrypted telemedicine software due to the privacy concerns involved. 

Telemedicine practitioners are bound by the same Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy laws that govern medical office visits. Following HIPAA rules means that your medical data and any interviews conducted through a telemedicine app are just as private and confidential as meeting with a doctor in an exam room.  

During the Covid 19 pandemic, some of the restrictions regarding HIPAA compliant programs were temporarily suspended. These relaxed restrictions allowed for great assessability to telehealth with a risk of a data breach. 

Advantages of Telehealth Visits for Patient Safety

Telehealth visits pose many advantages when it comes to patient safety. Here are a few of the reasons that telehealth visits can be safer than traditional medical appointments in an office (Source: News Medical Life Sciences): 

  • Telehealth visits can prevent exposure to infected environments. Doctor's offices are a revolving door of patients bearing contagious and potentially deadly diseases. No matter how hard nurses try to keep up, doctor's offices can't be kept completely sterile. Avoiding an in-person appointment means avoiding contagion. 
  • Telehealth visits can prevent in-person contact with infected people. Patients have to worry about a doctor's office itself being contaminated with contagious diseases, but they also have to worry about being in direct contact with infected people. Telemedicine can help you avoid infection and keep you from infecting others if you have a contagious disease.
  • Telehealth visits prevent commuting dangers. Thousands of people are hurt or killed annually on public roads, and going to the doctor from home means one less person at risk of being injured in an automobile accident. Telehealth also prevents people from having to endure the risks associated with public transportation. 
  • Telehealth can help protect pregnant women and other high-risk groups of people. It is significantly more dangerous for those with immunological disorders or pregnant women to be exposed to the contagious diseases present in a doctor's office than the average person. These people can find telemedicine especially beneficial for increasing medical safety. 
  • Telehealth can be used to verify the safety of home treatments for minor medical conditions. Many people feel more comfortable treating contagious illnesses at home if they have a medical professional's backup to verify that their home methods are safe and effective for use. Telehealth can also confirm that a patient's condition is stable and not growing worse. 

Telehealth visits already offer many benefits to patients, from lowering their bills to allowing healthcare visits off-hours. Still, in many cases, these telehealth visits can reduce health risks to the patient too. 

Other Advantages of Telehealth Visits

Along with safety benefits, telehealth visits also offer many other advantages for patients and medical professionals alike. Here are some of the other advantages you can enjoy by incorporating telehealth visits into your healthcare regimen: 

  • Convenience: Telehealth visits take less time than traditional doctor visits because they eliminate commute time and the time spent waiting rooms to be consulted by the doctor. It is also easier for most people to fill out medical forms and patient histories through online forms rather than writing them out and transcribed them by a medical clerk. 
  • Access: Telehealth applications can help eliminate patient access disparities by allowing people to access medical care outside of office hours or even on weekends and holidays. It can also help patients find specialist care when they live in isolated areas where seeing a specialist in person would involve travel.
  • Followup: Telehealth services make it easy for medical professionals to follow up with their patients after going through a telemedicine appointment. Better followup can lead to quicker recoveries as well as more complications caught before they become serious. In many ways, it's easier to get a followup through telemedicine than through a traditional medical office.  

Technology has made telehealth a superior choice compared to traditional office visits in many ways. While not all medical conditions can successfully be treated through telemedicine, many can. By taking advantage of state-of-the-art communications technology, medical professionals can run more efficient and effective practices. 

Who Shouldn't Use Telehealth Visits?

Even though telehealth visits are safe for most medical patients, some patients are required to see their healthcare practitioner in person rather than through a telehealth application. Here are some of the people who may not be able to use telehealth visits safely: 

  • People who need a prescription for a controlled substance: While telehealth professionals can prescribe medications such as mild antibiotics and maintenance medications for chronic conditions, they usually cannot prescribe narcotics or other controlled drugs. Ask a doctor to see if your prescription is eligible for a telehealth renewal. 
  • Patients at risk of complications: Some people have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to complications if they contract otherwise minor contagious illnesses. These patients should avoid areas like medical offices where the chance of infection from disease is increased. (Source: Center for Disease Control)
  • Patients in high-risk demographics: Some patients are part of high-risk demographics that should avoid infectious disease risk whenever possible. These include groups such as infants and the elderly. These same demographics also need more healthcare than the average citizen. Telehealth offers this care without causing patients to take on safety risks.

If you're unsure whether you're a good match for telehealth visits, you should consult with your general practitioner. They can usually give you a good indication of whether telehealth is a feasible option for your healthcare needs. 

Can Telehealth Provide Out-of-State Care? 

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) supports the licensure of telemedical professionals. They have also taken steps to streamline medical professionals' process to be licensed for telehealth services across state lines. 

Interstate licensing may make it easier for a specialist in one state to provide out-of-state medical expertise to clients across the country and even across the world. 

This generally increases access to medical experts no matter where their practice is located. It also allows patients to consult their regular practitioners even while traveling. 

However, there could be problems with opening up interstate visits. Not knowing the state-specific laws could create problems. There is also the possibility of making it harder for local providers to stay in business. Interstate licensing could indirectly create a shortage in certain areas of the country. 

Insurance companies would love to open up licensing because they know it would drive down reimbursement costs while driving up their profits.

Other Safe Telehealth Services

Telehealth services aren't just safer for medical patients. Medical professionals can also use telehealth for other non-clinical services such as administrative meetings and online training courses.

For patients, telehealth services don't just revolve around medical examinations. These types of appointments can also be made through telehealth services: 

  • Talk therapy appointments: Many medical intervention types such as psychotherapy can be conducted just as efficiently via telehealth services as they can through in-patient visits. This is especially true of mental health patients suffering from conditions that make it difficult for them to keep in-person appointments, such as depression or anxiety. 
  • Consultations: Outside of a medical visit, specialists such as cosmetic surgeons or sport's doctors can do impromptu consultations with their patients through telehealth services. This is especially convenient for professional patients whose work may take them far from their general practitioners, such as sports players and entertainers.  
  • Physical and occupational therapy: Many exercises prescribed by physical and occupational therapists can be done at home without the therapist's direct intervention. Telehealth appointments allow therapists to monitor their patients' physical progress in therapy without forcing them to come into the office. 

Telehealth visits aren't just used as a substitute for going to the doctor when you're sick. Telehealth services are being used for many kinds of services and data gathering in the medical industry. 

How to Be Safe in a Telehealth Visit

Telehealth services are generally safe, but not all telehealth services are created equal. Ask yourself the following questions before scheduling a telehealth visit: 

  • Is the telehealth service conducted on secure software? Only encrypted applications that follow HIPAA regulations are considered legal for medical professionals to conduct confidential patient meetings. However, during the Covid 19 pandemic, your telehealth medical professional may want to conduct an appointment via services such as Facetime, GoogleDuo, or WhatsApp which is temporarily allowed. 
  • Does my general practitioner know about it? Telehealth professionals need to have your entire medical history of giving a responsible diagnosis of your condition through a telehealth visit. Make sure that your usual doctor knows you are seeking out telehealth services to make sure you aren't in a high-risk demographic for complications. 
  • Will my health insurance policy cover it? Make sure you know how your health insurance policy stands on telehealth visits to avoid being blindsided with a medical charge outside of your normal coverage. Most major healthcare insurance companies charge less for telehealth than a regular doctor's visit, but all policies are different. 

Telehealth visits are safe and easy to conduct if you make sure you're going to the right person for your healthcare needs. Take precautions to make sure you don't end up going to someone who isn't a certified medical professional. 

Telehealth Visits Are Safe Like Traditional Office Visits 

If you've ever questioned whether telehealth visits are as safe as a visit to the doctor's office, the answer is clear. Telehealth visits are just as safe as traditional medical offices, and they may even be safer in many ways. Whether it's through providing crucial off-hours care or preventing the spread of infectious disease, the advent of telehealth has made seeking healthcare safer for everybody involved. 

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