Telemedicine has been an increasingly important part of health care for decades, starting with radiology. In the past several years, getting basic questions answered over a video or phone call has helped thousands of Americans get referrals to the right type of treatment without needing to go into a doctor’s office for a consult. (Learn More)

Telemedicine uses various forms of technology to get information from you, the patient, to your health care providers. (Learn More) With the COVID-19 outbreak, more people use video chat and phone calls to touch base with questions about symptoms or even to get routine care, including basic eye care. (Learn More)

Some companies began offering basic eye exams online, even sending results to a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist for an updated prescription. However, some eye conditions, like retinal issues, still require in-person diagnosis. (Learn More)

If you have a vision emergency, you should still get an in-person appointment. Non-emergency conditions may be diagnosable through a telemedicine appointment, which keeps you and your optometrist’s office safe during COVID-19. (Learn More)

Telehealth: How It Can Help You With Routine Care

The first major leap into telehealth began in the United States when radiology departments started sharing patient images for consultation with specialists. After decades, shipping these through the mail turned into sharing them digitally, allowing for much faster response times, accurate readings, and patient access to better medical recommendations.

With the success of long-distance, technology-bolstered radiology consults, medical professionals began wondering what other areas of medical practice could transfer to a telephone or video call.

As more of our lives moved into a digital space, more health care consumers reported that they would be willing to conduct a lot of their health care needs over the internet. A 2017 survey found that 66 percent of Americans said they would interact with a doctor over a video call, including 53 percent of adults who were 65 or older.

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to quarantines, stay-at-home or lockdown orders, recommendations to leave the house only when you need to, and strong advice around social distancing, all kinds of doctors have been working to safely practice medicine. Essential services like dentists and optometrists have been temporarily closed in some areas, but many have established ways to safely reopen so they can serve their patients and keep the population healthy without spreading the disease.

Doctors and nurses have quickly picked up telemedicine as a way to offer necessary, but not emergency, help via virtual appointments. This is particularly helpful with diagnosing potential problems that might need a prescription or that can be managed with treatment at home. Understanding what to expect from telemedicine, how it can help you, and how you can manage basic eye health means you can take care of yourself during COVID-19.

 

What Is Telehealth?

Telemedicine has been part of helping people get access to some aspects of medical care for years. People who live in rural areas can work with a virtual doctor to discuss symptoms and get referrals for treatment, which lowers overall health care cost and helps the patient get support and treatment. Parents with sick children or senior citizens can also benefit, as there may be transportation issues involved with going out to see a doctor in person.

Talking to a doctor or nurse over a video call is not ideal for every part of medicine, but it works for many areas. Many medical professionals have jumped on this service as a way of potentially suspecting COVID-19 and referring patients to testing, along with managing other conditions, including eye health.

A telemedicine practice may involve one or more of the following:

  • Live/synchronous audio-video: This involves using audiovisual communications, often an online video chat service, to connect health care providers and patients.
  • Store-and-forward/asynchronous: As in the early days of distance radiology consults, this involves gathering information, sending it out to a specialist, and then getting a doctor’s diagnosis. This is currently performed over email or a similar electronic system.
  • Remote patient monitoring (RPM): Information is gathered from a patient remotely, either during their normal activities or while they are in a medical setting but are being isolated.
  • Mobile health (mHealth): This is communication with a health care specialist using mobile devices specifically, like smartphones, tablets, and fitness trackers.

 

How Can I Use Telemedicine During COVID-19?

These different approaches to communicating health information to doctors and nurses are all approaches to telemedicine. With COVID-19, the most common approach is video chat software, which allows a doctor and a patient to see each other and talk.

Arranging a telemedicine visit depends on your location and your insurance provider. Some insurance providers offer one free telemedicine visit, especially if you are concerned about COVID-19 symptoms.

Check with your vision insurance to see how your telehealth visits might be covered under your plan. If you have a specific optometrist or ophthalmologist that you visit for routine eye exams, you can ask their office if there is a telemedicine setup option through their website or patient portal.

Here are some additional recommendations for setting up your first telemedicine visit:

  • Make sure your computer, tablet, or smartphone can support a video call.
  • Request the appointment, which could be the same day if needed.
  • Click the link sent by your provider that allows you into the video conferencing page.
  • Fill out any requested information before your appointment.
  • Discuss your symptoms with your health care provider.
  • Follow the health care provider’s requests so they can visually diagnose you, like sticking out your tongue or holding up your hand to show an injury.
  • Ask any questions you have to ensure you get the most out of the virtual doctor’s visit.
  • Follow instructions if you need to see someone in person or get a prescription filled, including adhering to social distancing and other safety precautions.

Getting Vision Care Remotely: Limitations for Some Conditions

Some companies have started offering basic vision tests online, and some websites provide a few basic methods for testing your vision on a website. For some companies, you can take their test online and your results are sent to a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist in your state, who can then determine what your new prescription might be for glasses and contact lenses. With COVID-19, your optometrist may recommend one of these services, which they have vetted and trust.

Other approaches to eyecare have benefitted already from telemedicine. Diabetic retinopathy monitoring, for example, has been established to work. A patient gets a screening through their general practitioner, and those images are sent to an ophthalmologist for an examination. This has allowed for faster, accurate diagnoses of diabetic retinopathy in people with diabetes, who may not otherwise get appropriate vision care quickly enough.

It is still harder to perform some important parts of an eye exam without seeing an optometrist or ophthalmologist in person. For example, your eye doctor cannot check your intraocular pressure remotely, nor can they get a good image of the back of your eye to diagnose potential problems with your retina.

 

COVID-19 Makes Telemedicine the Best Choice for Answering Questions

If you have a serious vision condition or vision emergency, getting an in-person appointment with your optometrist may be vital to saving your eyesight. For example, if you lose vision in one eye, even if it returns, you should contact your optometrist and get an appointment set up, as something could be wrong. If you suffer an injury to your eye, you may need immediate medical attention.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, starting with a telemedicine consult can help you a great deal with non-emergency issues. You can discuss your symptoms with a virtual doctor, and get a referral to the right service to help you. If you do not need immediate vision or other medical attention, you can get professional advice on how to manage the condition at home and how to know if your symptoms get worse, what to do if they stay the same or do not go away, and how to support yourself while overcoming the illness or injury.

You can also get recommendations via telemedicine if you are concerned about your health during the COVID-19 outbreak. This may be especially important if you have an underlying condition like hypertension or diabetes, which can impact your vision and your risk for contracting another illness.

 

References

Looking Forward: The Role of Telemedicine in Eye Care? (October 2018). Medium Health.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Telemedicine. (April 2020). AARP.

Health First Virtual Visits Provide Crucial Patient-Provider Relationship During COVID-19. Health First.

The Doctor Will “See” You Now: Online vs. In-Person Vision Tests. (March 2018). CNN.

Telemedicine for Ophthalmology Information Statement – 2018. (February 2018). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).