An older woman talking to a doctor on a laptop
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Telemedicine isn’t new, but it’s more important now than ever. There are many ways to video-chat with a medical professional online. Beyond providing advice and information, doctors you consult online can even write prescriptions and doctor’s notes.

How Online Doctor Visits Work

There are many different services for talking to a doctor online. Your health insurance company likely recommends one of them. These services generally aren’t free, but you’ll often just have to pay a small co-pay with insurance. If you don’t have insurance, you can still use them for a fee.

Telehealth services are legitimate services offering access to real doctors. You video-chat with a medical professional using your smartphone, tablet, or computer. You generally don’t have to make an appointment in advance.

Some situations need hands-on care, but video visits will let a doctor give you advice or a treatment plan online in many situations. Online doctors can even send prescriptions for medications to your local pharmacy, which is something that would normally require a trip to see a doctor in person. However, while online physicians may prescribe antibiotics and anti-allergy medications, they won’t prescribe narcotics and pain medications.

Beyond prescriptions, online doctors can often issue lab tests. You’ll have to go to a lab location in person, but you can skip the doctor’s office. An online doctor may also be able to write a doctor’s note for you if you need one for work or school and your situation requires it.

If you’re concerned you might have COVID-19—or you’re just concerned about picking it up at the doctor’s office while heading there for another reason—a virtual visit is a great way to talk to the doctor without putting yourself and others at risk. That’s why the CDC, the World Health Organization, and many health insurance companies are recommending telehealth services to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some are even waiving co-pays for telemedicine services.

Even if you don’t want to talk to a doctor right now, it’s worth doing a bit of quick research and finding out what online doctor service you would use if you ever need one. You probably don’t want to do that research when you’re already feeling under the weather.

We’re focusing on the US here, but virtual doctor visits are also available in many other countries.

Check With Your Health Insurer

A man communicating with a doctor via video chat on a smartphone.

If you’re currently covered under health insurance, you should check with your health insurer to see which online doctor service is recommended by or covered under your insurance plan. This information will likely be on your health insurer’s website.

For example, most Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans consider doctors you talk to via LiveHealth Online as in-network, covering them for the same co-pay you’d pay to talk to your primary care physician. UnitedHealthcare offers virtual visits for its members. Kaiser Permanente offers video visits with physicians that can access your medical history.

The costs and details will vary between health insurance companies and health insurance plans offered by the same insurer. For information about your benefits, contact your health insurance company. Your employer may also have more information about telemedicine benefits for you. You can also search the web for the name of your health insurer and “online doctor” or “virtual visit” to find information relevant to your particular insurer.

More doctors and hospitals are offering virtual checkups than ever. The coronavirus outbreak could be a breakthrough moment for the telemedicine industry, making more medical services available over a distance in the future.

Use an App With or Without Insurance

You don’t need health insurance to talk to a doctor online. For example, you can use an app like Doctor on Demand, available for iPhone, iPad, Android, or in a web browser on your computer. A standard virtual consultation costs $75 without insurance. Some health insurance plans will pay a portion of the cost, too. We have loved ones who have used this app in the past and can recommend it.

There are many other legitimate apps that will let you talk to a doctor at any hour of the day. For example, LiveHealth Online charges $59 without insurance, Teledoc charges $49 without insurance, and MDLIVE offers virtual doctor visits that start at $75 without insurance.

Even if your insurance doesn’t cover an online doctor’s visit, the price may be pretty reasonable when you consider the time you’ll spend traveling to a doctor’s office or urgent-care facility and sitting in a waiting room.

Not Everything Can Be Done Online

Of course, if you have a situation that requires emergency care, you should skip the online doctor visit and head to an emergency room. Likewise, if you’re sure you need in-person care—like getting stitches for a cut—that online doctor visit won’t help you much and you might want to go straight to a medical professional in person.

Here’s one thing to remember: If you think you have coronavirus and plan on getting care in-person from an urgent care center or your primary care provider, you should call in advance. Even if you feel sick enough to visit the emergency room, many hospitals and clinics are asking you to call in advance to alert them. The hospital can get you the care you need and take precautions to protect other people.

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Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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