Getting answers to questions related to healthcare plan coverage of telemedicine and telehealth service during this COVID-19 pandemic can be a tough, confusing endeavor.

How much tougher can it get when there are uncertainties about how, when and why to use telemedicine — one of the quickest, most efficient assessment options the public has available?

Apex experts have been fielding questions about telemedicine and how carriers are utilizing it and if they’re paying for it. Does it come at no cost? Is it on my healthcare plan? What’s the difference between telehealth and telemedicine? How do I even use it?

It’s not overly surprising these questions have come up. While “telemedicine” was coined in the 1970s, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it has become more popular in recent years. In fact, the current global pandemic has pushed telemedicine to the frontlines as a cost-effective method to get treatment. Still, it’s a new method for patients who are accustomed to walking into a clinic when they feel ill.

Here are some answers to common questions you or your employees may have surrounding telemedicine:

What’s the difference between telehealth and telemedicine? Is there one?

While the terms have been thrown around loosely, there is in fact a difference between the two. As the American Association of Family Physicians defines, telemedicine is the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance such as a doctor using telecommunications to deliver care to a patient. WHO also defines telemedicine literally as “healing at a distance.”

Telehealth refers to a broad range of telecommunications technologies and services used to provide care. Telehealth can also include non-clinical services like administrative meetings, medical education and training.

For this COVID-19 pandemic (and likely beyond), the virtual care patients want to seek out is telemedicine.

Does telemedicine come at no cost?

This is the million-dollar question everyone wants answered. The short answer – it depends. Some carriers like Anthem, UnitedHealthcare and IU Health are waiving deductibles, copayments and coinsurance fees for telemedicine visits, and that includes non-COVID-19 related visits.

Most carriers have waived these fees to create an incentive for using these services rather than going to a hospital, doctor’s office or urgent care center to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While these virtual visits cannot diagnose for COVID-19, they’re beneficial in that a healthcare professional assesses the severity of a patient’s symptoms and provides next-step treatment plans such as self-isolation or escalated treatment.

Specific carrier information regarding telemedicine costs can be found on the links in Apex’s COVID-19 Resource Page.

How do I use telemedicine?

There are a few ways to set up virtual visits. Some carriers have instructions to schedule visits on their web sites, and also list what technology is needed to complete a visit. Carriers like Anthem and IU Health have created their own free apps that are available through iTunes and Google Play, and also on computers. These apps often require creating an account.

For patients wanting to use a video call, a communications device with a camera is needed. That includes your computer laptop if it has a webcam, as well as smartphones and tablets.

Check with your specific carrier or ask your Apex account executive for specific information.

Benefits to telemedicine

There’s no question telemedicine is growing rapidly during this pandemic. Virtual visits are often quicker and have less wait times than sitting in a waiting room at a clinic or hospital. Since prescriptions can be written during virtual visits, it cuts out the commute from a clinic to the nearest pharmacy. That potentially means the patient could start getting better sooner.

Is it possible that telemedicine will become a more popular option than in-person medical visits? Even a new standard of primary care? That remains to be seen post-COVID, but here’s the insight of OurHealth President Jeff Wells, M.D.

For more information about telehealth, visit Apex’s COVID-19 Resource Page or other blogs.