A Parents Guide to Telemedicine: Everything You Need to Know About Remote Healthcare For Your Family

Here's how to use telemedicine during COVID-19 to save your family a risky trip to the doctor's office.

Nurse writing in clipboard while using phone for video conference at clinic
Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

Everyone is worried about staying safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. We're self-isolating and practicing social distancing as much as possible in hopes of flattening the curve—FaceTiming and Zooming for meetings and social gatherings, and we're doing our best to keep our families safe. But a global pandemic doesn't mean kids won't get ear infections or need their vaccinations or fall off their bikes, so what should parents do when their children get sick and it's not the coronavirus?

Luckily, clinics across the country are now employing telemedicine appointments, so you might be able to skip a visit to the doctor's office altogether.

How Does Telemedicine Work?

Telemedicine involves speaking to a doctor either over the phone or via video technology. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, "Telemedicine is the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to deliver care to a patient at a distant site." This means patients can be assessed and diagnosed from the comfort of their own homes and without the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus or potentially exposing doctors, nurses, and other clinic staff.

To make telemedicine more widely available during this public health crisis, the Department of Health and Human Services has relaxed Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy regulations, making more clinics able to offer telemedicine services than usual.

Under ordinary circumstances, health care providers are limited in the way they are legally allowed to assess and diagnose patients, but while COVID-19 remains an active threat, physicians are allowed to be more creative in how they see patients. According to a statement issued by Health and Human Services, health care providers can use their own phones or video chat interface to provide their services to patients, meaning you can talk to your doctor much more easily (many clinics and health care networks have also put secure video conferencing platforms in place).

What Can and Cannot Be Treated via Telemedicine?

While there are a few things that a doctor would need to see your child for in-person, the vast majority of everyday complaints can be addressed via telemedicine. Things like rashes, behavior issues, constipation, feeding concerns, and minor stomach bugs can all be assessed via telemedicine platforms, explains Atlanta-based pediatrician, Jennifer Shu, M.D.

However, some things still require an old-fashioned trip to the doctor. "Conditions that aren’t serious enough to warrant going to the emergency room but might need evaluation, such as ear infection, or testing, such as urinary tract infections, flu, or strep should be seen in-office."

In Dr. Shu's office, some well-checks are still on the books as well. "We are doing well-checks for all children age 2 and under. These are the ones most likely to need vaccines. We are also doing the 4-year well-checks with vaccines and some older kids, but 2 and under are most important."

If your child has a well-check coming up, give your pediatrician's office a call to see how they're handling vaccinations and yearly visits.

How Should Parents Prep for a Telemedicine Appointment?

Getting set up for a telemedicine visit isn't quite as simple as just opening your browser, but it's a fairly straightforward process. "Be sure to prepare for telemedicine visits by making sure you can access the telemedicine platform and create or log in to your account. Fill out online questionnaires ahead of time and get your child’s vital signs when possible," says Dr. Shu. "Having your child present for the appointment is an absolute must, and be ready to show any pictures or videos if they might help your doctor understand what's going on."

Wondering if you need doctor's gadgets at home? "It can also be helpful to have a thermometer, scale, blood pressure machine, and pulse oximeter at home since these are readily available now and don’t require special training," says Dr. Shu. "But these tools are by no means mandatory."

If you have concerns about your child's health, call your pediatrician and ask about their telemedicine capabilities. Taking advantage of telemedicine appointments can go a long way in helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus and not only helps keep your family protected, but also helps protect office staff and their families.

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