We’ve all been there. It’s the middle of the night and you wake up to a sad and sniffly kiddo shuffling into your room. Yup, looks like someone has a temperature. You phone the on-call doctor to make sure it’s nothing serious and then set an alarm so you can make an appointment when the office opens. Yet this time that doctor’s visit could go a little differently. It may not take place in the office at all. You may be offered a chance to see the doctor with a telemedicine visit.
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine has been in use for some time. For several years now, it’s connected patients to health care services using live video and sometimes special diagnostic tools that pass along information via the internet. Overall, it’s a way of going to the doctor without actually going to the doctor’s office. Historically, it’s done a great job of caring for people who live in remote locations and for people with ongoing conditions that need long-term monitoring.
That all changed last year. Telemedicine visits saw a big spike during the early days of the pandemic, partly to help keep the spread of the virus in check and to protect vulnerable patients. Even though that spike has since tapered off, one study found that about 40 percent of consumers in the U.S. say they’ll use telemedicine moving forward—and our own research from earlier this year put that worldwide figure at nearly 30 percent. Telemedicine seems to be taking root.
While telemedicine leaves many families with more healthcare options, it may leave them with a few more questions about their security as well. After all, our health data is a precious thing. In the U.S., HIPPA privacy standards protect our information and consultations with healthcare professionals. However, online visits add an entirely new dimension to that.
Make your telemedicine visit safer with these tips
If your health care provider recommends a telemedicine visit for you or your child, it can be both a convenient and safe experience with a little prep on your part. With a few straightforward security measures lined up (some of which you may already have in place), you can make sure that everyone’s private health information will be safe and secure during your virtual visit.
1. Protect your devices
A great first step for a safer telemedicine visit is to protect your devices with comprehensive security software. Like security software protecting you while you manage your finances, file your taxes online, and so forth, it will help protect you while sharing your private health information. Plus, it will give you plenty of other features that can help you manage your passwords, protect your identity, safeguard your privacy in general, and more.
Be sure to protect your tablets and smartphones while you’re at it, even if you’re not using them for telemedicine. With all the shopping and banking we do on those devices, it’s a smart move to protect them in addition to laptops and computers.
2. Use strong, unique passwords
Your telemedicine visit may require setting up a new account and password, one that will add to your growing list considering all the banking, social media, and payment apps you probably use. Plus, there are the umpteen other passwords you have for your online shopping accounts, your children’s school records, your taxes, and so on. Don’t give into the temptation of re-using an old password or making a simple one. Hackers count on that, where stealing one password means stealing several—and gaining access to multiple accounts in one blow.
When you set up your account, use a strong, unique password. This may also be a good time to get a handle on all your passwords with a password manager. Also found in comprehensive security software, a password manager can create and securely store strong and unique passwords for you, which can keep you safe and make your day a little easier too.
3. Use a VPN
A VPN, or virtual private network, offers a strong layer of additional protection when you’re transmitting health data or simply having a private conversation about your health with a professional. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel to keep you and your activity anonymous. In effect, your data is scrambled and hidden to anyone outside your VPN tunnel, thus making your private information difficult to collect.
Like many of the security steps, we’re talking about here, using a VPN offers benefits beyond telemedicine. A VPN is a must when using public Wi-Fi, like at airports and cafes, because it makes a public connection private (and safe from prying eyes). Additionally, it’s also great for use at home when taking care of sensitive business like your banking or finances.
4. Look out for phishing attacks and scams
If you’re searching for a telemedicine provider online, keep an eye out for sketchy links and scams. The sad thing with the increased use of telemedicine is that hackers have clued in and are looking for targets. One way you can stay safer is to use a web advisor with your browser that can identify potentially hazardous links and sites. Anti-phishing technologies in your security software can help as well by preventing email-based scams from reaching your inbox in the first place.
5. Check in with your provider
Even better than searching online, consider contacting your pediatrician or doctor’s office for a recommendation, as they can point out the best healthcare options for you and your concerns—and let you know if a telemedicine visit is the best course of action for you in the first place. This way, you can get comfortable with what your visit will look like, find out what special apps (if any) are used, and how your care provider will protect your privacy. Also, you can decide which device you will use and where you’ll use it so that you feel at ease during your virtual visit.
A reputable care provider will likely put all this pre-appointment information together for you on their website or “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) page, which will include helpful links and numbers to call if you need help or have questions. For an example of what that could look like, check out the telemedicine page that Virginia Mason/Franciscan Health designed for its patients.
6. Pick a private place
We’ve talked plenty about digital security, yet there’s the old-fashioned issue of physical eavesdropping to think about too. When it’s time for your actual appointment, pick a place in your home where you can assure yourself some privacy. (Of course, don’t go online for your virtual appointment in a public place.) Look for a space where you can’t be overheard by neighbors and passers-by—preferably someplace like your bedroom where you can be comfortable as well. If your child has an appointment, let them know that this is like any other doctor’s visit and help them keep their voice down so they can keep their info private.
What else should parents know about telemedicine?
With telemedicine becoming more and more of an option for families, it’s just one of the many tools your doctor or pediatrician can use to keep you and your family well. So as always, if you have a health concern, call your doctor or pediatrician’s office for guidance. They’ll know the best path forward.
In the meantime, there are some great resources out there that can help you make the best decision about telehealth if the time comes. One really helpful article from the American Academy of Pediatrics helps parents get up to speed on telemedicine and outlines a few cases where a telemedicine visit might be right for your child.
With the sniffles, fevers, and plenty of, “Mom, I don’t feel so good …” comments that come along with parenthood, it’s nice to know that telemedicine gives us another tool we can use to keep our families well—one that’s ultimately up to you and your doctor to choose if it’s right for your child.
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