You’ve probably increasingly heard the term “telemedicine” in the last decade. And rightfully so. This new approach to medicine could dramatically change the healthcare system in the U.S. in the coming years.

For the better, in most cases.

What is telemedicine?

While the name implies the use of the telephone, telemedicine is used loosely to define any kind of healthcare delivered from a distance.

It suggests:

  • The diagnosis of a condition based on a description or image/videos of the symptoms, from a distance
  • Then, a prescription or treatment for the patient, is written or delivered from a distance

Today, this is done most commonly by email, chat message, video feed (smartphones or laptop cameras), or phone. But it could technically include healthcare delivered by letter or telegram long ago!

What is virtual care, and is it telemedicine?

Virtual care may be a better characterization of telemedicine today considering the move away from the telephone toward other methods of communication. The two terms can be used interchangeably though, and virtual care does a better job of capturing other communication strategies, like video conferencing.

What is asynchronous telemedicine?

Telemedicine comes in a few shapes and sizes, and asynchronous telemedicine is probably the most common. But what does asynchronous mean?

  • Asynchronous telemedicine is also known as Store And Forward. It means that you and your provider are not necessarily communicating in real-time. For example, you take a picture of an odd rash on your arm one morning. You send it to your physician, who reviews it over their lunch break. Later that afternoon, they send you a diagnosis and a prescription for an easy-to-use rash cream.
  • Real-time telemedicine involves a live (synchronous) conversation between you and your provider. This could be through a video conference/feed, over the phone, or by messaging system (text or app) in real-time.
  • Remote Monitoring is usually for sicker patients who may have an ongoing issue that requires maintenance. For example, glucose monitoring that reports blood sugar levels to your doctor periodically throughout your day. Heart monitors are also increasingly able to transmit data remotely in order for a doctor to make a better diagnosis of a heart rhythm issue.

Can I use telemedicine?

Telemedicine is ideal for a variety of care needs. It’s making the biggest dent in primary care visits, often replacing the need to go see your family doctor for small symptoms or concerns.

The above example of a rash is a good example. It’s not an emergency, and your doctor can likely make an initial diagnosis just by seeing images. Telemedicine is also making big strides in Erectile Dysfunction diagnosis, urinary tract infections, some mental health conditions, and much more.

Many health care systems have embraced virtual care and are even moving toward a hybrid health care model, allowing patients to see their provider either through in-person visits or through telemedicine. Chances are if you’re not already, you’ll have the option to use telemedicine in the coming years.

How much does telemedicine cost?

Telemedicine typically costs less than a traditional in-person medical visit, and it can save you money.

This is one of the big reasons telemedicine is taking off. Telemedicine has the potential to reduce costs for everyone: the provider, the insurer, and the patient.

For the provider, it means lower overhead. Fewer administrative staff (nurses doing intake, for example) and, someday, the possibility that providers need a smaller physical footprint for a building. Virtual care also requires less of a provider’s time, and combined, these two facets mean they can charge less per patient event.

For the insurer, this means your care costs less.

For the patient, this means your care costs less, your insurance may cost less, and you may save time with fewer in-patient visits. Imagine spending 15 minutes on the phone with your doctor, compared to a 1.5 hour trip to the doctor’s office.