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Guide to Telehealth Services and Seeing a Virtual Nurse

June 3, 2020 | Staff Writers

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way Americans live their day-to-day lives, causing people to re-evaluate old habits and start new ones. Unsurprisingly, one major change involves healthcare services. With experts encouraging people to stay at home as much as possible, many have turned to telehealth. Rather than head to hospitals and physicians’ offices, patients can now connect with nurses and doctors through videoconferencing, phone conversations, and other virtual communications.

Telehealth services did not begin with COVID-19. Before the virus hit the U.S. in 2019, about 76% of hospitals already used telehealth technologies. But the pandemic has undeniably accelerated the use of these services. For example, the number of video visits at North Carolina’s Novant Health have increased from 200 to more than 12,000 a week, according to The Washington Post.

Experts say that individuals dealing with mild symptoms or seeking answers to basic health questions can benefit from telehealth services.

“In the case of a client calling into a telehealth service, often nurses will give some general advice, such as ice for a sprained ankle, elevate the extremity, and when to seek immediate medical attention,” said Tina M. Baxter, an advanced practice registered nurse and a board certified gerontological nurse practitioner through the American Nurse Credentialing Center.

What to Expect from a Telehealth Service

A telehealth appointment resembles a normal appointment. Patients speak to nurses, nurse practitioners, and doctors about any medical concerns or health problems over video calls or the phone. With video conferencing, healthcare professionals can even carry out some visual assessments from afar.

During the appointment, patients answer a series of questions about what symptoms they’re experiencing and which medications they take. Patients may ask their own questions about any health concerns as well.

During the appointment, patients answer a series of questions about what symptoms they’re experiencing and which medications they take.

“Consumers can ask general questions about health related matters, such as ‘What should I give my child who is running a low fever?’ to ‘How do I get my mother into a long-term care facility for a respite stay?'” Baxter said. “This can help the consumer to ask general questions and arm them with more specific questions to ask their primary care provider, if they need further guidance.”

Medical professionals can also write prescriptions through these virtual appointments, but not all do, according to Lane Therrell, family nurse practitioner, nurse educator, and wellness coach working in telehealth.

“Rules and regulations for prescribers are state-dependent, just like nurses’ license and practice requirements,” Therrell explained. “On top of state-level prescriptive authority restrictions, there’s the individual prescriber’s clinical judgment.”

Benefits of Telehealth Services

Even when not in a pandemic, telehealth services offer certain advantages for patients and providers alike.

For one, patients do not need to travel to a hospital or physician’s office. This is an obvious advantage during a public health crisis when Americans must follow stay-at-home orders and practice social distancing. But it’s also convenient at any other time, especially for those who might live far from a hospital or might not have a means of transportation.

Even when not in a pandemic, telehealth services offer certain advantages for patients and providers alike.

“Telehealth services make quality healthcare more convenient and more accessible to patients… [that] encourages more active engagement, which leads to improved health,” Therrell said.

In addition, much like preventative medicine, telehealth services can save patients a significant amount of money.

“Telehealth also helps reduce costs by serving as an ‘entry point’ into the healthcare system for patients who might otherwise seek care at an emergency room,” Therrell explained. “Patients who engage with a health professional through telehealth first may be able to avoid an ER visit altogether.”

All of this helps providers too. Healthier patients mean that hospitals don’t need to provide as many emergency services in the future. Hospitals and physicians’ offices can thereby serve more patients and run more efficiently.

Barriers to Telehealth Services

Many of the obstacles to telehealthcare services come from state-mandated licensing regulations and prescriptive authority rules.

“On one hand we have the theoretical capability for nurses to offer almost any type of healthcare advice via telehealth,” Therrell said. “On the other hand, nurses are bound by a highly restrictive state-specific professional license regulatory system.”

Studies show that factors like staff who struggle with technology, aging patients, or patients with a lower educational level could also impede the effectiveness of telehealth services.

To further complicate things, regulations on telehealth services vary from state to state. These laws not only differ in defining what providers are allowed to do during these appointments, but also what services qualify for reimbursement from Medicare.

“Additional hurdles include protecting patients’ health care information, avoiding fraud and abuse, and developing guidelines for peer review,” Therrell added. Studies show that factors like staff who struggle with technology, aging patients, or patients with a lower educational level could also impede the effectiveness of telehealth services.

Telehealth services aren’t a one-size-fits all solution. Individuals facing life-threatening emergencies should go to the ER, and patients dealing with serious symptoms, such as flu-like symptoms for more than five days, should also physically head to the hospital.

How to Find a Telehealth Provider

If you’re worried that you’ve contracted COVID-19, you might be a good candidate for telehealth services.

“If the symptoms are mild, talking it through with a licensed professional may be beneficial to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus in the emergency department and avoid overcrowding so that the personnel will be free to treat urgent cases,” Baxter said.

You can use several online resources to find a telehealth provider. The Telehealth Resource Center allows users to search by map. You can also try the Telehealth Certification Institute, which runs a search engine allowing users to narrow down their criteria by location and type of service. Furthermore, you can always simply contact your normal hospital or healthcare provider to check whether they offer telehealth services.

Keep in mind, though, that patients with severe coronavirus symptoms should go directly to a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions About Telehealth


  • What is the difference between telemedicine and telehealth?

    The scope of telemedicine and telehealth are different, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Telehealth refers to a variety of health services offered by providers, which includes non-clinical services. Telemedicine specifically refers to remote clinical services, or virtually providing medical care to patients.


  • Can I get a prescription through a telehealth service?

    In a broad sense, yes. However, in a more specific context, the answer depends on several factors. States have various restrictions on prescribing controlled substances through telehealth services. They also maintain different regulations about nurse practitioners prescribing medication. Finally, some healthcare professionals are more inclined to prescribe medication through telehealth than others.

    Currently, the federal government has loosened restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis, allowing physicians to prescribe controlled substances like buprenorphine for opioid-use disorder based only on telephone appointments.


  • Is telehealth covered by insurance?

    In many cases, yes. “Telehealth services are healthcare encounters… In other words, telehealth services are billable to a patient’s health insurance,” Therrell said.

    However, that’s not guaranteed for every state. Currently, 26 states require private insurers to cover telehealth services. If you live in a state where this law is not in place, check with your insurance plan.


  • Can telehealth appointments be over the phone?

    Yes. Although video conferencing allows the healthcare professional to see the patient and identify possible symptoms, they can still ask the patient important questions through a phone conversation.


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