Now more than ever, doctor’s phones have been ringing off the hook. 

However, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in-person visits and non-emergency surgeries have been put on hold to stop the spread of the virus. Thanks to video conferencing platforms and telehealth apps, you can now experience a “virtual” visit with a qualified physician at any time, day or night — no contact required.

Telehealth is not only a great way to take care of your healthcare needs while minimizing exposure but also, in reality the future of medicine and how we will interact with doctors. But just how different is your virtual visit to your traditional office visit? 

For those who have never done it before, there are many things that should be considered. Dr. Linda Anegawa, internist with primary care platform PlushCare, offers some tips to help you know when to call your doctor and how to get the most out of your virtual visit.

Have the proper expectations.  

Virtual visits have limitations – including at times sketchy internet connections and poor video resolution.  The ‘physical exam’ is limited to only what the doctor can see.  Also, if you are having a severe or unusual symptom or excruciating pain, it is highly unlikely that the physician will be able to properly diagnose you or be able to recommend effective treatment.  When in doubt about your symptoms, connect with the support staff for your physician first, in order to be sure that your concern is appropriate for a virtual visit.  Also, be aware that controlled substances are generally not able to be prescribed virtually. 

Make sure you download any necessary apps at least 2-3 days in advance. 

That way, if you have any difficulties, you can reach out to the physician’s office for assistance and they have time to respond to you. This way you can also make sure your device settings allow you to share your video and microphone with whatever app your doctor’s office is using.

Come prepared.

Given that most virtual visits are only around 10-15 minutes long, prepare your top 1-2 concerns for the visit well in advance to ensure that the doctor can address them efficiently.  If you have a long list of issues, you will likely need to book multiple appointments for follow-up.

Find a quiet, well-lit room for your visit and notify family to avoid disturbing you.  

Screaming kids and loud vacuuming make the visit a lot more challenging for both you and your doctor.   And please don’t be carrying on any dangerous or distracting activities.  We often see patients log on who are driving, and I always tell them to immediately pull over or reschedule for their safety!

Be on time — in fact, be early.

Log in to the app at least 15 minutes prior to your visit.

Have your prescriptions on-hand.

If you are asking for refills of medication prescribed by an outside physician, it’s a great idea to have the bottle available, or a record of the past prescription, plus any relevant recent blood tests if possible. Most apps have a way for patients to upload screenshots of recent labs or prescriptions securely.

This sudden expansion and increased access to telehealth is not only a good thing for providers, but patients as well. But for such short appointment windows, you may feel as though you’re not getting all of your questions answered within the timeframe.

That’s where your further prep comes into play.

Stephanie Kreml, MD, primary care physician and adviser to telemedicine platform, Medici, says that gathering your thoughts in advance and being prepared to answer your doctor’s questions will also help them figure out how they can help you more quickly. She offers a few examples of questions you should be able to answer about your symptoms.

What is the main reason you need to see your doctor? By answering this question, you’ll help your doctor focus on what is bothering you.

How long has this problem been going on? If this is a new medical issue for you, your doctor needs to know how long you’ve been dealing with it. Or maybe you’ve had this problem before and you’ve been able to deal with it on your own, but this time you need some help from your doctor.

How much is this problem bothering you? Other related questions might include: Is this problem making it difficult for you to perform your usual activities? If so, how does it affect them?  Does it keep you up at night? If you are having pain, how bad is it? Is it constant, or does it come and go?

Is there a specific place on your body that you are having this problem? If so, where? You may also want to describe if this problem is changing location. For instance, if you have pain, does it move around? Or if you have a rash, is it in one place or is it spreading?

Does anything make this problem better or worse? For instance, you might feel worse after eating. Or maybe you feel better after lying down. These are clues that may help your doctor figure out your underlying condition.

Have you tried anything to take care of this problem? Have you taken any medications for this problem? If so, which ones and how much? Did they help?

Is the problem getting better, worse, or staying the same? This can help your doctor decide what needs to be done next, what types of treatments you may need, and how quickly you may need these treatments.

 Are you noticing any other symptoms that occur along with the main symptom? Some types of illnesses and conditions have a pattern or group of symptoms. Letting your doctor know about these can help your doctor figure out what is going on.

What do you think the problem is and/or what are you worried it might be? Letting your doctor know about your concerns can help your doctor figure out what is going on. Or they can explain to you why there might be something else to consider.

Why do you need to see your doctor about your condition today? Let your doctor know what changed, what is new, or what is different about your condition. Is there something in particular that caused you to decide to see your doctor today?

Remember, doctors differ from platform to platform, so while this may be a great start, it may not go exactly as outlined. The important thing is to have an open mind and make sure that you’re advocating for your health needs — because no one else can do that for you, except for you.