Making the Most of Virtual Physician Appointments

Over the past few months and in many ways, the world has changed significantly. No more so than when it comes to accessing the care and advice of the physicians upon whom we depend.

Today, nearly all non-essential appointments are occurring virtually, whether through some type of videoconferencing or via our old friend and standby, the telephone.

Early on, these did not often go well! While physicians and their respective teams were quite open to the transition, in most cases it was, to put it nicely, clunky.

That’s partly because prior to the pandemic, most physician practices’ internal systems had simply not kept pace with patients’ or physicians’ desires for virtual appointments or with the technology required to make these work smoothly. Unfortunately, and practically overnight, the desire turned into a need and physician offices were left scrambling.

The good news is that over even just the first couple of weeks, the experience improved considerably. The bad news is that, like so many things in healthcare, there is no standard protocol, so every experience is different. Some sessions were initiated via text, some through the Patient Portal, still others required the advance completion of long questionnaires.

I have no doubt that post-pandemic, this will remain our “new normal” for many types of nonurgent visits. With that in mind, I want to share some suggestions for making these as productive and satisfying as possible.

Preparation is Key

I have always been a big believer in the importance of preparing for any physician appointment. Preparation helps to ensure that all relevant information is shared and that important questions are asked and answered.

This strategy holds true for virtual appointments as well. In addition, virtual calls require that further steps be taken to streamline the experience. Here are our suggestions:

Assess your technological capability and equipment. Do you only have a phone or smartphone (i.e., no computer)? If you have a computer, does it have a webcam? Do you know how to download software applications that may be required to make videoconferencing work? Speak with your physician’s office to determine what type of technology will be needed.

Enroll in your physician’s Patient Portal.Communication is much more efficient with the use of this secure technology. This is also where additional education material may be shared after your appointments.

Get set up ahead of time. Waiting until the time of your appointment to log in can lead to delays and frustration. Ask for specifics about the appointment log-in process (web site address, software required, phone numbers if needed) and see if you can practice connecting in advance. Make sure to understand how you would include any loved ones who you may want present as well. Outline a back-up plan in case the technology does not work on the day of your appointment.

Confirm a few days in advance. Physician offices continue to evolve the processes and technology used in virtual meetings. Check in a few days before your appointment to make sure the instructions you were given still apply.

Prepare your written agenda. Share it in advance via email or the Patient Portal. If you have the ability to take any of your own vital signs (temperature, blood pressure, pulse, weight and O2 saturation level), include that data with your agenda. Then, have it in front of you for the meeting to help guide the discussion and to take notes.

Follow-up. Summarize and document the appointment and any next steps, especially if follow-up is needed to schedule diagnostic testing. The physician will be documenting but you should as well, to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. Contact the office to confirm how your appointment will be billed so that you are aware of applicable co-pays and co-insurance amounts

Two Additional Pieces of Advice

A physician friend shared these two things:

#1. Obtain care if you feel you need it.

An unintended consequence of the pandemic is that individuals do not seek care for emergencies (e.g., strokes, heart attack) at the same rate as before, whether out of fear of COVID-19 exposure or a perception that resources are not available.

Please do not delay emergency care; the capacity is there to treat you safely. In addition, if your physician feels you need an in-person visit outside of the emergency room, arrangements will be made to do so safely as well.

#2. Update your health care proxy .

We covered this in last month’s newsletter. Apparently, a tremendous amount of time has been wasted during hospital admissions trying to clarify who someone’s health care proxy is.

Final Thoughts

Telemedicine is here to stay. My physician friend expects that half of future visits will remain this way post-pandemic. She believes that this is an effective and comprehensive means of providing care for many patients under many circumstances.

So, let’s do what we can now to get used to this new world. As always, it is up to us, as healthcare consumers, to play a proactive role in ensuring a productive and satisfying experience.