Telehealth: An Overview for Seniors

Dec 29, 2020
Doctor on video call with a patient

As the COVID-19 public health emergency continues, more and more doctors and patients are using telehealth (aka telemedicine) to address non-emergency and non-life threatening medical concerns. For seniors, who are especially vulnerable, telehealth is a great way to stay in touch with medical care providers without having to leave the safety of home.

Although telehealth isn’t new, it is maturing quickly, thanks to all the options available for video, chat and text communications. But it’s not right for everyone, every time. Here’s a look at how telehealth works, what it can provide, insurance concerns, and where to find participating physicians.

How telehealth works

Although many health care providers are open to using text and email, the best and most popular telehealth is via video. To accomplish this, several apps have been developed that work like Facetime or Zoom to connect doctors and patients via smartphone, computer, or tablet. These include MDLIVEBCBSM Online Visits, and Spruce – Care Messenger to name a few. Some are chosen by the physician, some by insurance providers, and others are designed to help locate a doctor if needed.

There are also apps designed specifically for addressing mental health needs and others that are designed by health care institutions like hospitals so that they are used solely within that system. For example, the Henry Ford Allegiance Health System’s Virtual-Care program offers a range of telehealth options including video appointments through a patient’s MyChart Account.

To begin the process, patients should check with their physician’s office to find out if telehealth is available. If it is, the next question is, “What app or system do they use?” Then it’s time to schedule an appointment. Thanks to the speedy nature of telehealth, many patients can be seen the same day they call. For those seeking a physician through a hospital, it’s often as easy as logging in to your account and seeing a doctor on demand. Once the appointment is set, download the appropriate app or double check to make sure your online account is set up and that you know how to access the necessary tools. For those who struggle with technology, ask a friend or family member to help you get it set up and write down instructions for easy access. Learn more about how telehealth works in the AARP article, “A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Telehealth.”

What telehealth can (and can’t) do

Telehealth is available across the spectrum of health care, from primary care to specialists, such as ophthalmology, dermatology and psychiatry. It’s especially great for routine annual check-ups and wellness visits, prescription concerns, and for ongoing monitoring for conditions like diabetes. Telehealth can also be used to provide physical therapy, and has also been beneficial in preventative medicine for those with serious conditions like coronary heart disease and chronic heart failure. Most of all, today, telehealth can be used to screen patients who may be showing symptoms of COVID-19, without exposing healthcare workers to the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides an in-depth overview of telehealth in the article, “Using Telehealth to Expand Access to Essential Health Services during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Keep in mind that telehealth should not be used in all cases. If there is an urgent need or emergency, a trip to the nearest urgent care clinic or hospital emergency room is always the best option. These include injuries that require hands-on help like open wounds, broken bones, heart attacks and strokes, and situations where a person loses consciousness or is having trouble breathing. In such cases, time is critical and care should be immediate so calling 911 is the best course of action.

Telehealth and insurance

During COVID-19, many more insurers are covering telehealth than ever before, including Medicare. According to Medicare.gov, “Due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Public Health Emergency, doctors and other health care providers can use telehealth services to treat COVID-19 (and for other medically reasonable purposes) from offices, hospitals, and places of residence (like homes, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities) as of March 6, 2020. Coinsurance and deductibles apply, though some healthcare providers are reducing or waiving the amount you pay for telehealth visits.

“If you have coverage through a Medicare Advantage Plan, you won’t have to pay out-of-pocket costs (called cost-sharing) for COVID-19 tests. They may also offer more telehealth services than what was included in their approved 2020 benefits.”

In Michigan, an Executive Order was issued in May that encourages the use of telehealth during COVID-19 “when medically appropriate” to help limit exposure and requires only verbal consent, rather than the usual written consent. The order also authorizes and encourages private insurers to cover telehealth services. More about the Executive Order is available in the mhealthintelligence.com article, “Michigan Governor Signs New Telehealth Coverage Guidelines Into Law.”

For those with private insurance, it is best to contact them directly and find out exactly what, if any, telehealth coverage is available under your policy.

How to find a telehealth physician

For those whose physician does not offer telehealth services or those who do not have a physician, there are other options. First, ask your insurer or check their website for information. Some provide apps that can be downloaded, as well as contact information for telehealth-friendly physicians.

Another great option is the Digital Health Directory provided by the Consumer Technology Association.  Designed for the healthcare industry to help connect patients and healthcare providers quickly and efficiently, the searchable data base can be used by patients or providers to reach a range of services including telehealth. Other searchable databases are through WebMD.com, and telMDFirst, which claims to help visitors connect with a U.S. Board-certified doctor in 10 minutes.

Telehealth services can be a great way for seniors to stay healthy, especially during COVID-19, while remaining safe and secure at home or in assisted living. For more information about Countryside, please call Margaret Nagel at (517) 206-5000 or download our brochure to learn about our care levels, cost, and amenities.

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