Telemedicine has gotten plenty of buzz lately, and it’s easy to see why: No matter where you are, you can instantly connect with a provider on the phone or over video chat without the rigmarole of searching for doctors, missing work and driving across town to see them.
But what if you don’t have telehealth benefits? Don’t worry. Even if you’re uninsured or underinsured, you can still pay for telemedicine directly. In fact, many companies offer that very service — and they may not be as expensive as you might think.
What Is Telemedicine?
Telemedicine uses technology to connect people with doctors of different specialties, such as primary care physicians or mental health counselors. Think of it as FaceTime for health care. This service has caught on in a big way, especially among certain types of physicians. According to the American Medical Association, radiologists use telehealth the most, at 39.5%, followed by psychiatrists at 27.8% and cardiologists at 24.1%.
While many health insurance plans offer telehealth benefits, some telehealth services sell directly to patients without the need for insurance, either through monthly subscription plans or flat per-visit fees. Some companies even have a mobile app to let customers get in touch with a doctor whenever, for nearly anything.
Here’s how it works: Say you suspect that you have pinkeye. You’d use your phone or computer to schedule a quick visit with a provider. Once connected, you would have a fairly normal doctor’s visit, just over video chat. The provider might ask about your symptoms and history. If needed, they’d also send a prescription to a pharmacy near you.
Telemedicine as a Backup Plan
If you have minimal insurance coverage — or none at all — telemedicine can serve as a good backup plan until you can get complete health coverage. Why?
- Cost: A virtual appointment for a medical problem, like a urinary tract infection, could cost as little as $49 on Anthem’s LiveHealth Online, for example. Compare that to $101, which is what an average in-person doctor’s visit costs. Even with insurance for that in-person visit, you’d still be out for the deductible, plus any copays and coinsurance — which, in the right circumstances, can make telemedicine a more attractive alternative for common injuries or sicknesses.
- Convenience: Many underinsured or uninsured people work irregular schedules; any ride-hailing driver could tell you that. Even if you do work a typical 9-to-5, you might find it hard to miss work for simple things like doctors’ appointments. Virtual health takes tight schedules out of the equation, with nearly around-the-clock access to providers when you need them.
- Access: With certain types of health plans, even people with comprehensive insurance have found it increasingly difficult to find providers in their network, especially if they live in rural areas, travel frequently or need mental health care. Telemedicine gives you the benefit of greater access even when you live in a health care desert.
It’s worth mentioning that telemedicine won’t help with everything: Technology can’t replace emergency rooms and ambulances, for example. That’s why even if you use telemedicine, you’ll still want to explore other options to cover gaps, like supplemental insurance plans or short-term insurance. Your health is complex, but getting care shouldn’t be — and when you’re talking to your doctor from your own couch, health care does seem to feel a lot simpler.
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