Telehealth visits during COVID-19: Five things you need to know

Cancer patients with upcoming scheduled appointments may be able to use telehealth services to avoid a trip to a hospital or doctor’s office and help prevent exposure to COVID-19.

You are a cancer patient with questions. You don’t have any immediate treatments coming up, you’ve been urged to stay at home, avoid crowds and public transportation and to protect yourself from exposure to COVID-19. But you have a follow-up visit or other doctor’s appointment scheduled, and you don’t want to miss it. What do you do?

You’re not alone in wondering. For some patients, telehealth, which links doctors and patients electronically, may be a solution when in-person visits aren’t required. “During these tumultuous times, telehealth may help patients practice social distancing and decrease the spread of COVID-19, enable cancer patients to continue their appointments and protect frontline health care workers,” says Chevon Rariy, MD, Telehealth Program Director for Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) and Medical Director of Endocrinology at our hospital in Chicago.

For example, CTCA® hospitals are offering telehealth services, when appropriate, for patients who are scheduled for face-to-face visits with a variety of doctors and clinicians, but may not require other on-site needs such as infusion treatment or special scans. With telehealth, CTCA connects patients for consultations and follow-up visits with medical oncologists and surgical oncologists, as well as doctors in a variety of other fields, including pain management and psychiatry. Patients also may be able to arrange visits with supportive care experts, including dietitians. 

But telehealth isn’t for everyone or every circumstance.  Here are answers to five questions that may help cancer patients learn more about telehealth:

How does telehealth work?

Telehealth is a relatively simple concept. A doctor or health care provider in one location sees and speaks to a patient in another location—on the other side of town or on the other side of the world. With the proper equipment, and a stable internet connection, telehealth may be used to connect you and a doctor from one hospital to another, or a doctor in a hospital to you in your home.

Telehealth also has been vital in helping to connect doctors with patients in remote locations and war zones around the world. For instance, doctors with the Syrian American Medical Society have used telehealth to see patients in their war-torn homeland.

What are the advantages of using telehealth?

Telehealth has some obvious advantages when used in specific situations. A telehealth visit is often more convenient and saves time and travel. It may reduce the amount of time you need to take off work—and the time you may otherwise spend in a waiting room. It may give you access to more doctors with more diverse fields of expertise. For doctors, telehealth may be a more efficient way to see more patients. It also helps doctors and patients reduce their exposure to illnesses.

But telehealth may not be appropriate in some circumstances. For instance, patients can’t undergo procedures or receive imaging tests remotely. In some cases, however, telehealth visits may be follow-ups to those procedures or to go over scans. Also, certain prescriptions, like some pain medications, may not be available because they can only be written in person. Technical challenges, like a spotty internet connection or a lack of computer access, may also limit some patients’ ability to use the service when offered. The key is to talk to your doctor or care team about whether you need to be seen in person or if a virtual visit is appropriate.

Does telehealth require a lot of complicated gadgetry?

Most telehealth visits can be conducted on a laptop computer, tablet or smart phone. You may need to download an app on your phone or computer. In some cases, it’s as easy as clicking a link sent to you in an email from your provider. For example, CTCA patients follow these simple steps:

  1. After scheduling their appointment, they receive a confirmation email, followed by email reminders the day before and the day of their virtual visit.
  2. When it’s time for the appointment, they click on the link in their last email.
  3. Those on a laptop or desktop computer are prompted to join the meeting via a web browser. Those on a mobile device are asked to download the Microsoft Teams app and join from there.
  4. Once connected, they’re put into a virtual lobby until the provider appears.

Will my insurance cover the cost of a virtual visit?

Check with your doctor’s office, hospital and/or insurance company to determine the cost and your level of coverage for a telehealth visit. The federal government has expanded telehealth coverage for patients on Medicare during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Is telehealth a passing fad or will it be available after the pandemic is over?

Telehealth services were already growing rapidly before the COVID-19 outbreak. According to a May 2019 article published by the American Medical Association, telehealth use increased 53 percent from 2016 to 2017. In comparison, use of walk-in clinics and urgent care centers grew 14 percent over that time. Dr. Rariy expects patients who used telehealth services during the COVID-19 outbreak will continue to do so, long after the crisis has abated.

“Patients will be able to experience firsthand the power of telehealth and its ability to allow their provider to participate in their care while they are in the comfort of their own home and around their loved ones,” she says.

If you are a cancer survivor or in active treatment and are concerned about how the COVID-19 situation may impact you or your care, please contact your care team.

Learn how cancer may make you more vulnerable to COVID-19.