What is telemedicine, and as a patient, how can I access it?

Telehealth appointment

Advances in technology and digital platforms have made it easy to access all kinds of resources with the click of a button, including opportunities to meet with a physician or other clinician and receive healthcare services without having to set foot in a clinic.

But these resources aren’t easy for everyone to access, making it a challenge to provide the ease and convenience of telemedicine and telehealth to all patients. Physicians Sachin D. Shah, MD, Maria “Lolita” Alcocer Alkureishi, MD, and Wei Wei Lee, MD, MPH, explain what telehealth is, how it benefits patients and clinicians alike, and how to access it even if you don’t have internet at home.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth, or telemedicine, is getting care from your healthcare provider through a medium other than in person. This could be during a conversation over the phone; sending questions or asking for refills via email or an online portal; or using a video call to have a face-to-face meeting. Telehealth became very important during the pandemic because we wanted to practice social distancing to protect our patients and ourselves from COVID-19. What we’ve found is that telehealth is valuable even beyond that — it has really enabled us to stay connected with our patients by making it easier for us to meet with patients in the comfort of their own homes, without needing to take time off of work, and allowing us to answer questions and provide treatment updates quickly via the secure MyChart patient portal.

How do I set up a telehealth appointment at UChicago Medicine?

The easiest way to set up an appointment is to call our scheduling line at 1-888-824-0200 or request an appointment online and someone will call you back within two business days to schedule an appointment. Our schedulers can help you determine what kind of appointment is right for you.

If you are already a patient at UChicago Medicine and you have a MyChart account, you may also be able to schedule an appointment directly through the MyChart portal.

Once you have made a telehealth appointment, our team is available to help you navigate the online system and ensure that your device is ready for the appointment. If you are not comfortable with a video visit or don’t have easy access to a video visit, we can also arrange a visit by phone.

What are the benefits of telehealth?

Studies have shown that for certain conditions and treatments, telehealth can be as good as or sometimes even better than in-person care. Telemedicine visits, either by video or by phone, are extremely convenient — patients don’t need to pull their kids out of school or leave work early for an appointment, and they don’t need to find a babysitter or take the bus or deal with driving and parking at the clinic. With a telehealth visit, the care is there when you want it in your own home. And thanks to asynchronous resources, such as the messaging system in MyChart, it’s easy for patients to ask non-urgent questions or request medication refills, and for a clinician or nurse to respond when they have time.

As a result, patients tend to be highly satisfied with telemedicine. It gives individual patients a much higher degree of access to their clinicians and their care teams without having to wait a long time for an in-person appointment. Having that regular communication with your care team can lead to better management of chronic conditions because your clinicians are more in tune with how you’re doing and what kind of care you need. So not only is telehealth good for patient satisfaction, it’s also good for patient health outcomes.

Telehealth can also improve in-person care by reducing how many people come in person to the clinic, freeing up hospital resources for patients whose healthcare needs require in-person care. This can reduce wait times and, ultimately, reduce healthcare costs.

What types of appointments are appropriate for a telehealth visit?

Many different kinds of care can be provided by telehealth appointments; really, the only types of appointments that aren’t appropriate are ones where an in-depth, hands-on physical examination may be needed.

This means that telehealth is ideal for a number of things. Behavioral health is an especially great option for telehealth, as it is relatively easy to receive therapy or discuss psychiatric needs via a video visit. It’s also good for situations where you just need to check in with your doctor, for example to discuss a maintenance medication or to manage a chronic condition. Telehealth is also ideal for certain kinds of healthcare discussions, such as preconception appointments for those considering pregnancy or genetic counseling appointments. If you are in a situation where you are already under care for a condition or just need to discuss a medical question with a clinician, or maybe get a referral to another type of care provider, telehealth is a good resource.

We also encourage patients to consider telehealth as part of a combination of care options. For example, perhaps you are experiencing some new symptoms and decide to have a telehealth visit with your primary care clinician. After discussing with you, your clinician may choose to order blood work or other labs. Now, you only have to go in to visit the lab, as opposed to visiting the clinician’s office and going to visit the lab.

If you’re not sure what kind of visit you need, we recommend you call our schedulers at 1-888-824-0200; they can help you determine what kind of appointment is best for your situation and needs. You can also request an appointment online.

What should I do if I don't have internet at home?

We recognize that it can be difficult to access telehealth resources like video visits and MyChart if you don’t have internet at home, don’t have a device like a computer or smartphone, or aren’t familiar with using the technology. We recommend that our patients first try accessing the local resources offered by calling 311. CHI 311 can provide information about city services and can provide information about what kinds of low-cost internet resources might be available, or where you can get a low-cost smartphone. You can also reach 311 by calling 312-744-5000 or by downloading the 311 app.

We also recommend that patients visit their local public library, which can provide a number of important internet and digital resources. Libraries usually have computers available for public use, including internet access, and may even offer computer classes for those who wish to get more familiar with using digital devices. Some locations may even have laptops or Wi-Fi hotspots available for patrons to check out to use at home. You can reach the Chicago Public Library at this link, and also by calling (312) 747-4300.

If you have kids, ask their school about their available resources. Many schools provide Chromebooks to children for schoolwork and/or virtual learning. You can also learn more about the Chicago Public School (CPS) Chicago Connected Initiative to provide free high-speed internet service here and also by calling the CPS Parent Tech Support Hotline at 773-417-1060.

And if you aren’t very familiar or comfortable with digital technologies, such as smartphones, ask your children, grandchildren, neighbors or friends if they or their loved ones can help you learn how to use a device. You can also visit spaces like community and senior centers. If you’re not sure where one is in your community, call 311 or look online here.

Most important of all, let your healthcare team know! We have lists of resources we can share on where you can find a low- or no-cost smartphones and internet, and where you can learn how to use the devices. We want to help you access the resources you need to get the best care possible.

What is the digital divide? How does it affect me as a patient?

There is a split in our community between people who have access to and know how to use technology and those who don’t. As many parts of our lives have become more technical and driven by digital platforms, a lot of important things have moved online — everything from paying our bills to watching the news to connecting with our friends and family. We’ve come to depend on technology to connect us with the things we need, but not everyone has a computer or a smart phone or fast internet. So the digital divide is the division between individuals who can easily access these digital platforms that are now so important in our society, and those who cannot.

Telehealth and related resources, such as MyChart, are a wonderful opportunity for clinicians and patients to connect more directly and regularly, allowing for better managed care and improved patient satisfaction and control of their medical care. But it’s important that we make sure everyone in our society has access to these resources, not just those with the most money or who live in certain areas.

It’s important to us as healthcare providers that we support our patients and help them access the resources they need. We need to advocate for changes that ensure access for our patients who may be older, or not white, or living in isolated rural or low-resource urban areas. It’s important that we help these patients cross that divide, because fundamentally, this is a health equity issue. In a digital age, to ensure the best care for all patients, we have to ensure that all patients have access to the same resources.

If you or a loved one is struggling to access telehealth resources, please let your healthcare provider know so they can provide you with information on how to more easily access these platforms.

Sachin D. Shah, MD

Sachin D. Shah, MD

Sachin D. Shah, MD, provides comprehensive primary care to adults and children of all ages. He serves as associate chief medical information officer of UChicago Medicine.

Learn more about Dr. Shah
Maria (Lolita) Alcocer Alkureishi, MD

Maria (Lolita) Alcocer Alkureishi, MD

Maria (Lolita) Alcocer Alkureishi, MD, serves as a primary physician for infants, children and teens of all ages. Her goal is to provide continuity of care and preventive health care services for medically underserved youth.

Learn more about Dr. Alkureishi
Wei Wei Lee, MD, MPH

Wei Wei Lee, MD, MPH

Wei Wei Lee, MD, MPH, specializes in adult internal medicine and in primary care for underserved populations. A dedicated physician-mentor-educator, Dr. Lee trains medical students and residents in outpatient medicine and preventive care.

Learn more about Dr. Lee