Overall, an estimated 41%–42% of U.S. adults reported having delayed or avoided seeking care during the pandemic because of concerns about COVID-19, including 12% who reported having avoided seeking urgent or emergency care. Unsurprisingly, telehealth options are exploding in popularity. This method of care increased between 50% and 8,000% in the first quarter of 2020—compared to the previous year—and these services are being covered by Medicare and private insurance companies more than ever before.

Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each type of appointment—including a good old fashioned in-person appointment—can help you to start to understand what types of visits may work best for your situation. Telephone based appointments and video calls are what is most commonly associated with telehealth options, but they can also be done with email, text messaging and other electronic mediums that reduce the need to travel to a medical facility.

Knowing your options can better prepare you for a conversation with your doctor about what type of appointments they offer and what they think may work best for your unique situation. 

In office appointments

A traditional in-office appointment allows you and your doctor to connect in person for a more satisfying emotional connection. Visiting the office in person also allows for the most effective type of hands-on examination, with the least risk of symptoms being missed or overlooked. An in-person visit also allows you to receive follow up tests as needed, as opposed to waiting for mail-in or at-home versions. If you need a skin biopsy, strep test or x-ray you can get them at an in-person visit.Going to your doctor’s physical office requires finding transportation and spending the time to get to and from their office. Also, you risk some exposure to people who may be COVID-19 positive as well as other germs that could cause a cold or flu. During the pandemic many medical facilities are only allowing patients themselves to enter the facility, which can be problematic if you require assistance or are accustomed to attending appointments with another. Because of the back-log of people wanting appointments—due to pandemic related shutdowns—scheduling an in-person appointment may be more difficult and require a longer wait then previously experienced.

Phone appointments 

A phone appointment does not require a computer/smart phone set-up or navigating any unfamiliar online platforms. These simple appointments are easy to schedule and can be used by primary physicians to refer patients for needed follow-up care, such as seeing a physical therapist for back pain or an endocrinologist for diabetes management. A phone appointment is also a useful way for your doctor to decide if an in office visit is warranted. These types of appointments can also be used effectively on an ongoing basis to monitor chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Phone appointments often work best when there is already an established relationship between patient and practitioner.A traditional phone appointment—that does not feature a video component—does not allow the practitioner to see your body in real time, which limits the amount of direct information they can collect. Both patient and practitioner need to be available in real time for phone appointments, so scheduling can be a challenge.

Virtual video based appointments

Research shows that satisfaction levels for video visits are similar to in-person visits, especially after the first visit, which may be more stressful due to mastering a new online platform and style of visit. These appointments can reduce transportation requirements as well as time spent traveling and in waiting rooms.With a video interface the practitioner can do more of a physical exam then they could via phone, though they won’t be able to palpate or feel potential problems. This type of appointment eliminates risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 or any infectious condition.Virtual appointments usually require either a computer or smartphone interface and an ability to navigate the technological platform the medical provider is using to host online appointments. For people not familiar with using these platforms the experience can be anxiety producing and uncomfortable, especially the first visit. They also don’t allow for a complete physical examination or immediate follow-up testing.

Text messaging

Advantages: Disadvantages:
Texting is probably the least common of the telehealth modalities, but it’s growing in popularity as more medical professionals utilize the medium. There are many innovative programs for managing chronic conditions and mental health issues that are using text extensively. Another advantage of text based care is that it doesn’t require the patient and doctor to be in contact in real time, which reduces scheduling hassles. Texting requires a smartphone and is not offered by many practitioners. Due to the constraints of the medium, it also limits the amount of information that can be shared and does not allow for a hands on examination or follow-up testing. 

Email and online portals 

Emailing is a convenient medium that can be used by patients and doctors to stay in touch regarding non-urgent medical conditions, such as refilling prescriptions or checking in with plans of care. This method allows patients to send detailed descriptions and photos of their conditions, so that medical staff can evaluate if a follow-up appointment or some other form of treatment is appropriate.Emailing is an appropriate medium for non-urgent medical situations. Once an email is sent to a practitioner patients have to wait to hear back, which could cause anxiety for anyone who is anxious about a condition or illness. Email relies on the patient to describe symptoms, as opposed to an in-person or video examination. Many emails go unread and unanswered, so this may not be the most reliable way to communicate with patients and medical professionals.