A woman sitting on her couch while on a video call with a physician.

Virtual care—also known as telemedicine--has revolutionized health care.

Ryan Walsh, MD, MMM, ABFM, ABPM, FAAFP, chief medical information officer of Ambulatory and Population Health at Memorial Hermann Health System and a family practice physician at Memorial Hermann Medical Group Physicians at Sugar Creek, discusses how telemedicine works and its ongoing advances.

With virtual care, not only do you help prevent the spread of contagious illnesses by not exposing others, Dr. Walsh says, “but you don’t have to take a good chunk out of your workday to go. You also eliminate a commute and cut waiting room time. Why would you not want to do that?”

What else should you know about virtual care?

Virtual care has lots to offer.

With Virtual Care, you can talk with your health care provider about your symptoms and concerns. It allows a surprising amount of physical examination for patients and providers via Zoom, FaceTime or other video platforms, allowing providers to make diagnoses and treatment plans in real time.

Dr. Walsh also mentions that physicians can send orders electronically for screening tests and for new or changed prescriptions, just as they would during an in-office visit. Once exam results are available, your health care provider can give them to you virtually via the clinic’s patient portal or by phone or in person, as you and the physician prefer.

However, virtual care doesn't work for all visits.

“If you have crushing chest pain or are seriously ill, don’t log onto your doctor’s patient portal,” he says. “Call 911 and/or go to the emergency room.”

Generally, virtual care works well for ailments that take you to your health care provider or urgent care clinic. But it doesn’t substitute for emergency room care, where clinicians need to see what’s going on and possibly treat. “Most things we can do over a video connection,” Dr. Walsh says. “But obviously, physicians cannot feel lumps, listen to your lungs or sew up wounds virtually.”

Mammograms, blood work, urinalysis, vision exams, procedures and vaccines for shingles, flu, tetanus and other diseases also must be done in person. And new doctors most likely will want to see you in their clinic for your first physical or specialty appointment.

Virtual visits can be done on a smart phone, tablet or computer.

Much of standard care can be handled efficiently via virtual appointments, he says. For minor ailments such as colds, sore throat, flu or bladder infections, you can have the same discussion with your health care provider via telehealth as you would in the office. The same applies to behavioral therapy and regular monitoring of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Telemedicine is a great option for managing chronic conditions like blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol. It allows more frequent contact with your provider without the hassle of a long waits or missing work.  It’s also helpful for discussing weight management or mental health. Minor acute illnesses such as colds, sore throats and the flu are easily treated via telehealth.  Worst case scenario, you have a trained medical professional who can advise you to seek a higher level of care.

Don’t worry if you’re not tech-savvy. Your doctor’s staff can guide you on how to set up a virtual visit. Do a trial run before your session to make sure your internet is working that day and you have the correct link to your doctor’s platform. Choose a setting that is well lit, quiet and provides privacy and no distractions—avoid an office cubicle or your car, Dr. Walsh says.

You'll get the best results if you come prepared.

Just as you should before an office visit, jot down questions you’d like answered, along with a list of your prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines and supplements, including dosages. It also helps to have a family health history, as well as dates for your previous surgeries or hospitalizations. “That way you get the most out of the appointment,” he says.

Your health care provider can alert you which data you should collect in advance. It’s helpful to have tools such as a thermometer and others you already use for a chronic condition, such as a blood glucose meter for diabetes and a blood pressure cuff for hypertension.

Also, if you’d normally accompany your child, parent or spouse to an in-office appointment, you can and should do the same for their virtual appointment, Dr. Walsh says.

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