How to Get the Most Out of a Virtual Doctor’s Appointment

Medically reviewed by Allison Truong, M.D.

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Virtual doctor’s appointments are just one of the many changes we’ve had to get used to as part of the COVID-19 “new normal.” Physicians are invested in reducing the impact of the global pandemic, and are doing their part by limiting the number of patients in their waiting rooms and direct contact between patients and medical staff, when possible.

It’s a plan that’s seamless enough when it comes to psychotherapy appointments and mild illnesses. But for patients with chronic conditions who often present with symptoms they would like their doctors to see in person, these virtual visits raise questions. Can they provide the same level of care? And what can we do to make the most of a visit that’s not in person?

Prep Your Technology

A virtual appointment will be quite different from a traditional one, and the procedure can vary from office to office, so a little preparation can go a long way in preventing potential hiccups and frustrations.

“I recommend contacting your doctor’s office the week of your appointment to find out and confirm which virtual platform you will be using and what the expectations for you are,” recommends Navya Parsa, M.D., a rheumatologist at Columbus Arthritis Center in Ohio. “Find out ahead of time if there is a link that can be e-mailed to you, if you have to download an application, and if there is a password you will need to enter.”

Ask for a Test Run

If anything about that process seems uncomfortable or complex to you, you can request to do a “test run” with someone on the doctor’s team, to make sure everything is running smoothly prior to your appointment, says Parsa.

When you do the test run or prepare your equipment, keep in mind that it will be important for your doctor to see you well.

“Make sure you are in a well-lit room,” Parsa suggested. “Avoid backlighting. Have the source of light ahead of you and falling on your face. Make sure your video capabilities are turned on, and have the brightness turned up to a comfortable level.”

Fill Out Paperwork and Take Pictures

Ask the office what paperwork is necessary before the appointment. If all the required forms are done ahead of time, your doctor can get right to the medical part of the visit.

If you are having a visible symptom, such as a skin lesion or rash, take clear photos from far and close-up, and send them to the doctor ahead of time, so that they can examine them, suggests Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care in Beverly Hills, California. The video is not always good enough quality to adequately see skin findings up close, and it can be difficult to move a computer around to show them properly.

Make Notes in Advance

In order to keep the visit moving smoothly, have a list with bullet points of what you’d like to discuss in front of you when your appointment begins. This is especially important, because your appointment time will be limited.

“Most doctors’ appointment time will allow for one to two problems to be discussed at either an in-person or virtual visit,” says Shainhouse. “Let your doctor know if you have more than one issue and what they are before you begin, so that they can allocate time and/or let you know that multiple appointments will be needed to address all of your concerns.”

You may want to also jot down any specific questions you have, so you don’t forget, and have a list of your medications—or the bottles themselves—handy to tell the doctor what you’re taking.

Know When a Virtual Appointment Just Won’t Work

While virtual visits can work for a variety of appointment types, they have their limitations. There are some circumstances when it’s fair, and even necessary, to request an in-person visit instead.

“The doctor cannot examine things with a magnifier—called a dermatoscope, if it’s for skin findings—or use special black lights, if needed,” she says. “Internists, general practitioners and pediatricians cannot listen with their stethoscopes. It is also hard to look inside the mouth, throat, eyes, ears, or scalp.”

Unsure whether your appointment should be done in the office or virtually? Call the office to ask. If it’s a physical symptom, sometimes you can send a photo ahead of time, and the doctor or nurse can determine if you need to go in person. Shainhouse says she needs to see dermatology patients in her office, for example, if there’s a concern about skin cancer or melanoma; a skin lesion that may need to be lanced, cultured or removed; a required injection; or for a full-body mole check. The same goes for procedures such as biopsies, excisions, injections, and in-office phototherapy.

“Virtual visits can be great for follow up visits, like making sure a medication is working or to discuss issues,” Shainhouse says. “This can work very well for chronic, well-controlled conditions.”

And if your treatment plan hasn’t been working, especially if you were initially seen as a virtual appointment, she says it’s perfectly acceptable to ask to be seen in person.

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