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Telemedicine

Whether it's video-chatting with grandma, learning algebra on an interactive whiteboard, or playing a favorite game on a tablet, kids today are connected. Technology is woven into the fabric of their lives — and their health care isn't far behind.

Advances in technology are making health care delivery more efficient. So, goodbye, paper charts; hello, electronic medical record-keeping. Digital devices are also replacing the old standbys used to check things like blood sugar in people with diabetes, and can perform many other health-related tasks.

And soon, you'll be able to visit with a health care provider almost anytime, day or night. For certain illnesses, you'll schedule an appointment and video-chat with your child's doctor right from your home computer, tablet, or smartphone. No waiting rooms. No long drives. No getting a sitter to watch your other kids. This saves everyone time and money.

In many areas, this practice is already happening. It's called telemedicine — and it's changing the way health care is done.

What Is Telemedicine?

In simple terms, telemedicine allows health care providers to examine, diagnose, and treat patients using technology like a phone, computer, or other device.

Telemedicine isn't new  it's been in practice since the 1950s. Back then, doctors used radio signals to reach patients in remote areas of the world who didn't have access to care. But an explosion of technology has broadened the scope of what we can do with telemedicine.

This includes:

  • Reaching a provider, day or night, via your device. In many areas, parents can schedule a video-chat appointment with a doctor or other health care provider for a face-to-face visit. Many aspects of care lend themselves to these "virtual visits," such as:
    * Diagnosing common viruses like colds and flu, infections, pinkeye, rashes, allergies, and mental health problems like anxiety or depression
    * Doing routine follow-up visits for things like surgery or illnesses
    * Reviewing lab results, MRI scans, or other test results
    * Providing education, such as explaining how to use an inhaler or how to toilet teach a toddler
  • Sharing health data via digital devices. Phone apps, digital watches, and other wearable devices now record health data, such as blood-glucose readings for kids with diabetes. This information can be relayed to a computer monitoring system in your doctor's office or hospital so that health care professionals can keep track of your child's health.
  • Sending X-rays, ultrasound images, or photos from one location to another. This practice lets doctors securely share the actual pictures, rather than just reading a radiologist's report or a description of a rash.
  • Improved access to specialists and specialized technologies. Many areas are lacking in specialist care. By using telemedicine, doctors in remote areas or small hospitals can reach a specialist at a larger hospital and have access to that hospital's technology. For example, a community hospital patient with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee could have a virtual visit with an orthopedic surgeon in a hospital miles away. The surgeon can review the MRI scans or other images via telemedicine and diagnose the patient with technology not available at the community hospital.

Limitations 

Telemedicine isn't meant to replace traditional health care, but to supplement it. And it does have its limitations.

Critics of telemedicine worry that there will be a breakdown of continuity of care  meaning that families will stop seeing their regular doctors if the doctors don't provide virtual visits, and opt for whoever is available. That doctor may be less informed about a child's medical history.

Others worry that many health problems can't be diagnosed through telemedicine. Anything requiring a physical exam  like pressing on the belly to feel for a mass in a patient complaining of belly pain  would need to be done in person.

New tools allow nurses or medical assistants to use an instrument on a patient  like a stethoscope (to listen to the heart)  and connect it to a smartphone so that a doctor at another location can participate in a physical exam. But these tools are not yet widely available.

Finally, while many health insurances (including some Medicaid programs) cover telemedicine services, others don't.

Setting Up a Virtual Visit

Many doctor's offices and health care systems are already providing virtual visits to their families. Next time you speak with your provider, ask if this service is offered.

These steps can help you make the most of your visit, and avoid some of the challenges that can come with anything new:

  1. Find out if visits are covered. Call your health insurance provider and ask if virtual visits are covered. If not, you may be paying out-of-pocket for any visit you have.
  2. Ask your doctor's office if they charge extra for virtual visits or a "convenience fee." Some health care systems will charge a fee for the convenience of a virtual visit on top of what they bill you or your insurance company for.
  3. Download the software. Most doctor's offices and health systems have software that they use to communicate with their patients. This software must be downloaded onto your computer, tablet, or phone to talk to your doctor or have a virtual visit. You can often schedule visits using this technology, as well. These systems are safe and secure, and handle patient information according to the guidelines set out by the government's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Communicating with your doctor using other means, such as text, email, or uncensored video-chatting apps, are risky and can compromise your family's health information.
  4. Find out where your family's records are going. If you have a virtual visit with your child's primary care provider (PCP), all the details of the visit will be included in your child's medical record. But if your visit is with a new provider, ask how that information will be shared with your child's PCP. If there's no system set up to alert the PCP about the visit, it's up to you to contact your child's doctor and share the details of the visit so that it can be filed in your child's medical record.
Date reviewed: August 2016

Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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