The Doctor Will See You In Person Now

Doctors’ Notes

Real stories by real family physicians

Telemedicine lets you access medical care without leaving home. But it isn’t the right choice for every visit with your doctor.

by Dr. Cate Buley

About the Author
Dr. Cate Buley
Cate Buley, MD, FAAFP, has practiced full-spectrum family medicine in remote settings in Alaska for 20 years. Currently, she is the Medical Director of Primary Care Clinics at Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) in Juneau. In addition to practicing family medicine, she spends much of her time leading medical home teams to grow healthy communities in Southeast Alaska. Her special interests include health care for American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) people and their communities, population health, telemedicine, and health assurance.
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I practice family medicine at a clinic in Alaska. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, my clinic switched to telemedicine visits. Using videoconferencing or by phone, patients could connect with their health care team while keeping a safe physical distance. We only saw patients in person for urgent problems or emergencies. (Learn more about telemedicine and how it can increase access to medical care.)

Since then, many family medicine practices have partially or fully resumed in-person care. Doctors and other health care professionals have protocols to keep clinics safe for their patients, their staff, and themselves. For example, they may require face masks and encourage physical distancing. Many practices are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

My clinic still offers telemedicine visits as an option. These are especially helpful for patients who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 or don’t feel comfortable with a face-to-face appointment yet. I continue to have telemedicine visits with patients who have stable chronic medical conditions (for example, diabetes) or stable mental health conditions. Telemedicine visits can work well for mild acute problems. These include colds, skin rashes, and minor joint and muscle pain. I can also provide some types of preventive care and wellness services remotely.

However, in some cases, I need to see a patient in person to make an accurate diagnosis or determine the right treatment. Recently, I had a telemedicine visit with my 74-year-old patient Linda (not her real name). She has high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions. I see her on a regular basis to monitor her care. During the visit, she told me she felt dizzy and lightheaded. These symptoms were new for her. After talking with Linda about how she was feeling, I decided that she should come in for further evaluation that couldn’t be done remotely.

I explained to Linda why I needed to see her for an in-person visit in this situation. I assured her that my clinic was taking all recommended precautions to keep patients safe from COVID-19. She agreed to schedule an office visit. When she came in for her appointment, we did an electrocardiogram (EKG) and ran a basic set of lab tests. We checked her blood pressure after she moved from lying down to a standing position. I also gave her a physical exam.

Fortunately, Linda’s exam and tests didn’t raise any red flags. She told me that her dizziness went away after I adjusted her blood pressure medicine. Also, she had started checking her blood pressure at home with a home blood pressure monitor provided by the clinic. I asked Linda to see me in 1 month for a follow-up telemedicine visit. She scheduled the appointment.

Telemedicine will probably continue to be part of Linda’s care, when appropriate. She told me that she is thankful technology allows her to get medical care from her own home. Linda will also see me for in-person visits on a regular basis because she needs a procedure every 3 months for a chronic condition.

Quick Tip

Telemedicine visits can be a good option in some cases. But they aren’t the right choice for every situation. For example, some exams, tests, and procedures need to be done in person. You may also need to go to your doctor’s office if you have new physical signs, such as a lump, or quickly changing skin findings, such as a skin infection that has red streaks or changes in a mole. Check with your family doctor to find out if an in-person visit is needed to make a diagnosis or determine the right treatment for you.