Your son is at college 300 miles away and calls you complaining of an earache.
Your dad has run out of his blood pressure medication and needs a doctor to renew his prescription.
You feel a burning sensation when you pee. You’ve had a urinary tract infection before, and the symptoms are the same.
And of course, you’re juggling a busy schedule and multiple responsibilities.
Each of these medical situations may be handled by a virtual doctor’s appointment, saving patients time while still providing the care they need, says UNC primary care doctor Amir Barzin, DO, medical director for UNC Health’s virtual care services.
“Virtual visits are a great option for those who may have issues receiving care in person—such as an unexpected transportation issue or urgent need that arises that day,” he says. “The visit can be as comprehensive as it would be with a primary care provider in a clinic.”
When to Do a Virtual Visit
Many patients live hours from a medical specialist or even their primary care physicians. Virtual care makes healthcare more accessible to people who live in rural areas or don’t have easy access to transportation. It’s also a good option for people who are very busy and have trouble making time for in-office visits.
“To me, one of the goals of medicine is to make care comfortable and convenient for our patients, and to meet their needs,” Dr. Barzin says. “I feel guilty if a patient has to drive two hours for a 30-minute appointment. Virtual care allows us to provide quality care to all patients.”
Some of the conditions that a virtual visit can address include:
- Colds, cough, fevers, flu
- Ear infections
- Insect bites
- Mild headache/migraine
- Mild stomachache
- Sore throat
- Urinary problems
Talk to your provider about other clinical situations that may be appropriate for a virtual visit.
Many practices will make appointments for you with your primary care physician and send you instructions on how to connect on your computer, phone or tablet. Sometimes, if your provider is busy, you may get one of their medical colleagues, but they will make notes in your electronic medical record so your doctor is aware of what happened during your visit.
For example, virtual platforms at UNC Health enable any UNC Health provider to see your past treatments, current issues you are working on with your primary care provider or specialist, and any labs. This reduces the need to have the same work done by multiple providers, which can save you time and money.
“Virtual care is a great option for acute care needs, things that come up all the time,” Dr. Barzin says. “When it’s not possible to get to your doctor’s office, then virtual visits make sense.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, not many doctors offered virtual care, Dr. Barzin says. But as patients and medical providers tried to provide the best care to patients while limiting their risk of COVID-19 exposure, virtual care (telehealth) became more common, and doctors and patients both became more comfortable with the process.
Some healthcare systems offer virtual care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When you are up in the middle of the night with pain or illness or you are caring for a sick child, spouse or parent, a virtual visit can provide relief sooner than waiting for your doctor’s office to open the next morning.
When You Need to See a Doctor in Person
Of course, some health issues require an in-person visit.
“If you have a broken bone, or you think it’s broken, you need to come in to see somebody,” Dr. Barzin says. “If you’re having severe chest pain, call 911 or get to the nearest emergency department.”
Other conditions that should be seen by a provider in person include:
- Any life-threatening symptoms, including chest pain
- Bleeding wounds that may require stitches
- Mental health issues (initial consultation or any suicidal thoughts)
- Pregnancy or birth control concerns
- Unexpected shortness of breath
- Urinary tract infections in men or in women under age 18
Dr. Barzin says doctors want to provide the best care possible while limiting the need to go to an emergency department for nonemergent medical issues. If the patient can’t get to the doctor’s office quickly enough, they may conduct a virtual visit to assess the situation and guide the next step. Maybe an urgent care clinic could handle the illness or injury instead of going to a hospital. On the other hand, if the patient or someone with them is reluctant to call 911, the physician can.
If you need to be seen by your primary care physician for routine care, ask if virtual visits are an option. If you don’t have a primary care physician, find one near you.