10 health issues you can get treated with an online doctor's appointment

Telemedicine could soon be the new normal. Learn when to use it and when to see a doctor IRL.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
5 min read

Some health issues don't require a doctor visit IRL and can be diagnosed over the phone or video chat.

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COVID-19 has changed life as we know it for the entire world, and will continue to do so even beyond the pandemic. One thing that will change for sure is health care -- going to the doctor, a hospital, emergency room or even a standard check-up may never feel the same again. It's very likely that telemedicine is going to be used more than ever moving forward to keep people from going to a doctor when it's not necessary for them to leave their house.  

According to a survey by HealthCare IT News, two thirds of participants said they are more willing to try virtual healthcare now due to the coronavirus pandemic. A telehealth company, SteadyMD, said their sign ups increased by more than 50% between February and March this year alone. The Federal Communications Commission also created a $200 million fund to help healthcare providers improve, expand or start telemedicine services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now that more people than ever are likely to try telemedicine, it's important to understand what types of medical issues are appropriate to use telemedicine for, and which ones warrant an in-person visit with a doctor. Keep reading below for which issues you can use telemedicine for, and what you need to see a doctor for. 

When to voice or video chat with a doctor

Telemedicine usually involves talking to a doctor via video chat, text messages, calls or a combination of these services. Some telemedicine services, like TytoCare for example, even offer home exam kits that let you check important vital signs in real time with your doctor. 

TytoCare home kit

A TytoHome kit includes various medical tools to use when chatting with a doctor remotely. 

Screenshot by Mercey Livingston/CNET

It's particularly useful for those times when you can't physically go to the doctor, but know you need medical advice. And now with social distancing and shelter in place orders, many people can't go to a doctor unless it's to the ER. Here is a list of health issues that are easy to diagnose via telemedicine, according to Dr. Josh Emdur, physician and medical director at SteadyMD. Emdur says in his experience, telemedicine works best for very mild conditions and he guesses that around 80% of patient complaints could be addressed with a video consult.

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Mild conditions that don't typically require an office visit:

1. Pink eye. Doctors can diagnose this contagious infection remotely.

2. Cold and flu symptoms. There's no need to expose fellow patients in a waiting room if you're feeling sick. Doctors can review your symptoms from afar, especially if you're in otherwise good health.

3. Hair loss.  Doctors can examine you for hair loss through a video call or if you send them photos.

4. Allergies. Itchy eyes and a runny nose? Yep, a doctor can give you guidance on what to do if you have allergies.

5. Erectile dysfunction. Telemedicine is usually enough to diagnosis and treat this common disorder.

6. Urinary tract infections. Many infections, including UTIs, require just a round of antibiotics to clear. Doctors can easily do that over the phone.

7. Vomiting and diarrhea. Whether it's a stomach bug or something else, you can stay home and chat with a doctor as a first step for dealing with these symptoms.

8. Skin infections and rashes. Many telemedicine services let you send photos to your doctor, which is perfect for identifying rashes, infections and other skin concerns.

9. Cold sores. Just like skin issues, the same guidance applies to cold sores.

10. Sinus infections. Like UTIs, a remote doctor's visit and some antibiotics is usually all you need to clear up a sinus infection.

Of course, not everyone can or should use telemedicine for certain medical conditions. Those who have underlying health issues or require ongoing testing will likely still need to need to head to a doctor's office or clinic. Telemedicine can be a good starting point to identify any health issues and during a video or phone appointment, the doctor might recommend you see a medical professional in person.

When not to use telemedicine

Some non-life-threatening conditions may require more hands-on care, which is why it's best to communicate with your doctor if you are sick and are not sure what type of care you need. "Any condition that is potentially life threatening should be evaluated in person given they require immediate advanced testing and careful examination," Emdur says. 

Non-life-threatening conditions that require hands-on care:

  • Injuries like an ankle sprain or potential broken bone.
  • Conditions that require any kind of in-person testing to diagnose, like strep throat or diabetes.
  • Any other medical issue that warrants an x-ray, blood test or other test only a doctor can order in person.

For more serious conditions including those that could be life-threatening, like a heart attack or stroke, you should always go straight to the emergency room or call 911. 

Symptoms of life-threatening conditions that need emergency care include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • New onset muscle weakness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath

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What can doctors do during a telemedicine appointment?

It's easy to think that a doctor can't really examine you over the phone or computer. But with high-definition cameras and at-home exam kits that can connect to your phone via Bluetooth and send vital signs to your doctor, that is changing rapidly. "A skilled telemedicine doctor can assess general appearance, mood, breathing, throat, lymph nodes, skin, abdomen, neurologic status and the musculoskeletal system via video visit," Emdur says. 

Besides what doctors can observe via video and communicating symptoms through speaking with your doctor, there are several tools to help with measuring important vitals signs. 

"When the video visit is paired with vital signs from connected devices like thermometers, blood pressure cuffs and pulse oximetry, we start to get really close to the in person experience. As telemedicine continues to evolve and patients have home diagnostic sets including otoscopes (to look in ears) and other high-definition cameras the need to go to a doctor will become less relevant," Emdur says. 

The tools available will depend on which telemedicine service you use, but you can ask your individual provider if they offer exam kits or for suggestions on what tools to buy for use at home.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.