Editor’s Note:Dr. Robert Bernstein is the VP of Clinical Affairs, Carena, Inc., a healthcare technology company that designs and operates virtual clinics for health systems.
More and more hospitals and health systems are leveraging integrated, on-demand virtual care in order to improve healthcare and address patient demand for low-cost convenient care. But many consumers remain unclear about how to use virtual care, and what they can expect during their first encounter.
Dialing or logging into a health system’s virtual clinic is a brand-new experience for most, and can feel awkward, or even daunting. As a physician, I’ve seen numerous first-time virtual patients who may have experienced these feelings. That’s why I have put together these five tips to help prepare anyone for their inaugural virtual visit.
1. Be ready to have a conversation
Think of virtual care as a consultation and not a cold online transaction like buying a book or a new pair of shoes. The clinician will need to ask you about your current symptoms, your past medical history and other important information. Make sure you are in a quiet, private place for your visit so you can be a full participant. During the visit, a clinician may conduct some physical exam tests with you, or have you send in pictures to review.
After the consultation and evaluation, the clinician may make a diagnosis or give you advice on how to manage your symptoms. If safe and appropriate, they may prescribe a medication for your condition. They may also advise you on when and where you may need to be seen in person.
Remember, the virtual visit is not meant simply as a quick way to get a prescription. Based on what is most appropriate for patients, less than half of our virtual visits result in a prescription. Just like going to the doctor in person, the virtual visit is a consultation and may only include a prescription if appropriate and beneficial. Sometimes education and reassurance is the most beneficial starting point, it doesn’t cost anything extra or have bothersome side effects!
2. Help optimize your medical information
Your virtual visit clinician may have limited or no information about your medical history. Make the most of your visit by having the names and doses of your medications handy, as well as any other important information about your health, including: drug allergies; dates and types of surgeries; and past hospitalizations.
Having this information handy can make your virtual visit more efficient, safe and comprehensive. Also, if you have equipment like a thermometer, a blood pressure cuff or a flashlight, they can be used to help the clinician get a clearer picture of your health and provide you with better care.
3. Be open minded
Virtual clinicians may make different recommendations than you have received in the past. Clinicians strive to practice the best medicine based on national guidelines and recommendations, and apply those high standards of care to the virtual setting. They will factor in your past experiences and your preferences into your treatment plan, but sometimes it may be different than what you expected or have done in the past. For example, we know providers sometimes feel pressure to prescribe, and many of us have been guilty in the past of overprescribing antibiotics for viral illnesses with no benefit to their patients. So for symptoms that may have been treated with an antibiotic in the past, we may recommend other treatments that will help you feel better sooner.
4. Be prepared to follow up
Virtual care is a convenient and safe option for many conditions, but it is not a replacement for having a regular primary care provider. Virtual clinicians should inform your primary care provider of the care and recommendations you received at your virtual visit, so have the name and clinic location of your primary care provider available at the time of your virtual visit.
If you don’t have a primary care provider, virtual clinicians will encourage you to get one and can help you with a referral. Sometimes a clinician may not be able to manage your concern via a virtual visit, or it may be for something that is more appropriate to manage in the context of an ongoing primary care relationship. Even if the clinician takes care of an acute problem with a virtual visit, often – just like in an in-person visit – follow-up will be needed. These follow-up visits are best scheduled and done with your primary care provider.
Finally, during your virtual visit, a clinician may recommend additional follow up with your primary care provider about other issues, including important preventive care. When you seek care through your local health system’s virtual clinic, you not only get the security of receiving care from a trusted hospital, but it also makes it easier for all your care to be better connected.
5. Accept the limits of virtual care
Technology is greatly improving healthcare, and virtual visits can be a very convenient, safe and cost-effective way to take care of many medical issues, but it is important to note that every medical setting has limitations and a scope of what can be managed.
Virtual care has its own unique set of limitations since hands-on exams and laboratory and imaging tests can’t be performed. There are times when your primary care provider may need to refer you to a specialist or even to the emergency room. Sometimes it is clear from the outset that you need another level or setting of care, but sometimes that need isn’t known until you’ve undergone an evaluation at the lower level of care first.
Similarly, there are times when we know from the beginning that virtual care is not the right option, and we will help you get to the right place for care. Other times, we may not know that you need more than virtual care until we have completed a thorough virtual visit evaluation. While we always want to take care of you virtually when safe to do so, both clinicians and patients need to acknowledge the limitations and recognize when other care is needed.
Virtual care is a fantastic advancement in healthcare, and consumers should take full advantage of its convenience and cost savings. Preparing for a first-time visit and understanding what to expect will help maximize its myriad benefits.