Learning Center > Talk to a doctor online or in person: Which is right for you?

Talk to a doctor online or in person: Which is right for you?

healthinsurance.com talk to a doctor online or in person, doctor wearing white coat with a stethoscope working on a smartphone

It's exciting to see how technology has evolved and improved health outcomes for residents nationwide. One prime example is telemedicine: You can set up a virtual appointment with a doctor across the country, get an immediate diagnosis, and receive treatment so you can feel better.

Telemedicine is made possible through technology like laptops, smartphones, apps or video chat systems.

People have been turning to virtual medicine as a convenient and affordable alternative to traditional doctor visits. And several major insurance companies include telemedicine in their covered services and encourage policy members to use this option if it fits their situation.

But in many cases, seeing a doctor in person makes sense. So which is right for you? Let's cover the pros and cons of talking to a doctor online versus seeing a doctor in person.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine services, like appointments, prescriptions and diagnostic testing, are delivered online through board-certified licensed doctors across the country. In other words, it connects you with medical professionals in real time by phone or online. But it's important to note that telemedicine is used for non-emergency health situations.

People living in rural or remote locations have found telemedicine to be especially beneficial. Rural residents typically travel long distances for basic and specialized health care. But rural residents are now seeing an increased access to doctors and services, thanks to telemedicine.

What can online doctors treat?

Online doctors can diagnose and treat common medical needs such as:

  • Cold, flu and other viruses
  • Infections, rashes and allergies
  • Prescription drugs and refills
  • Chronic condition maintenance for diabetes, blood pressure and more
  • Treatment for some mental health issues like depression and anxiety
  • Routine follow-up visits after a surgery or an illness
  • Educational appointments to explain how to use an inhaler, for example
  • Sharing of health data through digital devices

The specific services and prescriptions that online doctors offer to virtual patients vary on a state-by-state basis. The federal government has set basic guidelines for the regulation of telemedicine services, which are intended to steer state governments to create their own local legislation.

Most states have additional regulations governing which types of services and prescriptions a resident can receive online, especially for a first-time prescription or therapy. As an example, Kansas is one of the only states that gives virtual doctors some flexibility with prescription medications.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees regulations and recommendations concerning telemedicine and related virtual health services on the national level.

Virtual doctor vs. in-person doctor: What's the difference?

One obvious difference between online doctors and in-person primary care physicians is that online doctors cannot physically examine patients.

And though virtual doctors can prescribe most medications, controlled substances can rarely be prescribed online due to a national rule developed to combat the current opioid epidemic.

Both traditional medical care and telemedicine services have pros and cons that patients should evaluate before choosing which type best suits their medical needs.

And the truth is: You shouldn't replace your physician with an online doctor. So it's wise to maintain regular appointments with your in-person physician.

That said, the pros and cons include:

Pros of telemedicine

  • Convenience: You can access high-quality virtual services from the comfort of your own home with nothing more than your mobile phone.
  • Speed: Virtual appointments can be scheduled sooner and completed faster than in-person appointments. And you don't need to worry about traveling to a doctor's office or waiting in line.
  • Access: Patients can make immediate appointments with an array of specialized doctors nationwide, and receive care 24/7, 365 days a year.
  • Affordability: Telemedicine services often cost less than their equivalent in-person medical care.
  • Privacy: Telemedicine services must adhere to HIPAA privacy rules, which means your medical information will be safe and secure.

Cons of telemedicine

  • Limited services: Online doctors can only diagnose and treat basic medical services, not complex conditions.
  • Limited assessments: Since you're not being seen in person, online doctors can't conduct comprehensive physical exams.
  • Limited physicians: Not all physicians participate in telemedicine programs.
  • Limited with prescriptions or tests: In most states, telemedicine doctors can't prescribe all medications or conduct certain medical tests.
  • Resistance to technology: Both doctors and patients must be able to use technology to connect with each other and conduct a telemedicine appointment. This can lead to resistance from patients who may not be comfortable using technology or doctors who don’t want to change their practice patterns.

Pros of seeing a doctor in person

  • Ability to conduct physical exams: The biggest benefit of seeing a doctor in person is the ability of the doctor to physically examine the patient - a more comprehensive way to diagnose and treat health conditions.
  • Consistent patient-doctor relationship: Your primary care physician is typically someone you know and trust with your health care needs because they understand your health status and medical history.
  • Offers care for emergencies: You should always call 911 if you're facing a medical emergency. Online doctors can't treat you in these types of situations.

Cons of seeing a doctor in person

  • Wait times: Longer lead time is typically needed to see a doctor in person. Then, you may face longer wait times once you're in the waiting room to see the doctor.
  • Higher costs: In-person appointments can be more costly than online appointments. One study estimated that patients save approximately $100 on an average telehealth visit, with $75 of that devoted to health care costs and the other $25 to travel and time spent seeking care.
  • Geographic limitations: Most people can only afford to see doctors who live in their nearby area. If you need a specialist, seeing the right doctor in person may not be an option.

Which type of medical care is right for you?

Having both a primary care doctor and telemedicine can improve the quality of your healthcare and gives you access to a doctor for almost every medical scenario. Ask yourself these questions when determining whether an online doctor or in-person doctor is right for your situation:

  • Is my medical condition an emergency?
  • Will I potentially need a prescription for my condition?
  • Does my insurance company offer telemedicine benefits?
  • What are the out-of-pocket costs to see a doctor vs. book an appointment with a doctor online?
  • What are my state's laws on telemedicine?

Learn more

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Telemedicine 

  • ACA (Obamacare)

  • Medicare

  • Short Term Insurance

  • Hospital Indemnity Plans

  • Dental

  • Telemedicine

Get a Free Quote

Telemedicine 

  • ACA (Obamacare)

  • Medicare

  • Short Term Insurance

  • Hospital Indemnity Plans

  • Dental

  • Telemedicine