The pros and cons of virtual visits

December 15, 2020 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
virtual visits

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have tried a virtual visit through an online app or a service provided by your health insurer. Many primary care physicians and specialists around the country didn’t even offer virtual visits as an option, but 2020 changed that.

Because people were concerned about potential exposure to the virus at their doctor’s office or urgent care center, the number of virtual visits skyrocketed this year. According to statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the first quarter of 2020, virtual visits increased 50% compared to the same period of time in 2019. A report by McKinsey & Company Health Care Systems & Services puts the number even higher, with healthcare providers seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via virtual visits than they did before the pandemic. Many in the healthcare field predict that people will continue to use virtual visits with their physicians even after the pandemic is controlled.

Like any technology, virtual visits have pros and cons, some obvious, others more subtle. For example, you wouldn’t use a virtual visit if you had clearly broken your arm, but you might connect with a healthcare provider virtually if you weren’t sure whether you were experiencing a break or a sprain and wanted advice on whether you should go to the emergency department or make an urgent appointment with an orthopedist.

Virtual visits can be a good option for people living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, and asthma who may be at increased risk of more severe COVID-19 infections. You can consult with your doctor virtually to help you stay on track managing your condition and getting needed prescription refills sent to your pharmacy electronically. You will need some equipment to get the most out of these visits. Before your appointment, check with your doctor to find out what you’ll need. Depending on what chronic conditions you’re living with, you may need an accurate blood pressure and heart rate monitor, a glucose meter, a pulse oximeter, a scale, and/or a peak flow meter.

The pros of virtual visits

In addition to lowering your risk of being exposed to COVID-19, the flu, and other contagious diseases, virtual visits offer several other benefits:

  • Convenience: You don’t have to spend time traveling to and from your doctor’s office and sitting in the waiting room. This can be especially helpful for people for whom travel is more difficult, like the elderly and those with conditions that limit their mobility, and those who live in remote or rural areas.
  • Access to a wider range of healthcare providers: Virtual visits may also expand your access to care. For example, if you’re seeking a second opinion, you can get a virtual second opinion from an expert physician anywhere in the U.S., rather than being limited to physicians near where you live.
  • Input on your next steps: A virtual visit can save you an unneeded trip to the emergency department, local urgent care, or your doctor’s office. You can check with your healthcare provider to find out whether you need to be seen in person, and if so, what the most appropriate place to seek care is in your situation. This can also lower your care costs since a trip to the emergency room is significantly more expensive than a virtual visit.

The cons of virtual visits

While remote visits work well in some situations, they may not be the best choice in others. Of course, in an emergency, you should always call 911. Here are some other potential drawbacks:

  • Lack of continuity of care can increase the risk of medical errors. If the healthcare provider you connect with virtually is not your usual primary care physician or specialist, the provider may not have access to your comprehensive medical record, which can increase the risk of misdiagnosis, medical errors, or inappropriate treatment. In addition, if the notes from your visit aren’t shared with your regular physicians, they may miss important information about your health and you may not get needed follow-up care.
  • You may still need in-person care. You may still need to see a healthcare provider in person after a virtual visit if you need imaging, blood tests, or other hands-on diagnostic tests or if your condition requires a physical exam for an accurate diagnosis.
  • Your personal and health information may be at risk. Although data security isn’t just an issue for virtual visits (many healthcare institutions have been the victims of data breaches), there is a risk that your information may not be completely secure. Before choosing a virtual visit, ask the provider what steps are taken to safeguard your information and privacy.
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