Telehealth for Seniors: What to Know

In 2016, only 0.3% of adults with Medicare used telehealth services. In recent years, that number has skyrocketed. Many older adults have tried a virtual visit for the first time over the past year and have found that it’s a great way to “see” your doctor. At Oak Street Health, making telehealth appointments with your primary care doctor is easy and simple, and we have resources to walk you through it, if you’re new to virtual healthcare.

What Is Telehealth?

Telehealth involves meeting with a healthcare provider who is in a different location from the patient using real-time, two-way technology. This is done via video or audio. Through telehealth services, you can meet with a doctor without leaving your home.

Telehealth visits can replace:

  • Office visits
  • Therapy sessions
  • Consultations
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The History of Medicare and Telehealth

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare coverage of telehealth services was only available for people living in rural areas, and patients had to be in a healthcare setting to receive these services, such as at a doctor’s office or in a medical clinic. There were a number of restrictions on which services and healthcare providers qualified for coverage.

Beginning in spring 2020, Medicare responded to the COVID-19 public health emergency by expanding its coverage of telehealth services. Doctors and other healthcare providers can now use telehealth to treat many more conditions than in the past, and patients can do virtual visits from their homes.

Recent changes in our world have affected the relationship between Medicare and telehealth.

Does Medicare Cover Telehealth?

Beginning in spring 2020, Medicare responded to the COVID-19 public health emergency by expanding its coverage of telehealth services. Doctors and other healthcare providers can now use telehealth to treat many more conditions than in the past, and patients can live anywhere, not just rural areas. They can also do virtual visits from their homes instead of needing to be in a healthcare setting.

Changes to Medicare Telehealth

Some of the recent changes Medicare has made to its coverage of telehealth for seniors includes:

  • Medicare covers virtual check-ins.
  • You can get Medicare telehealth services for certain emergency department visits at home.
  • You can get some physical and occupational therapy services at home.
  • You can receive Medicare telehealth services to treat a substance abuse disorder.
  • Coverage is available for evaluation of stroke symptoms, including in mobile stroke units—ambulances that are equipped to quickly diagnose and treat strokes.

Medicare Coverage for Audio-Only Telehealth Services

While most covered telehealth services for seniors are via real-time video, Medicare covers some services delivered via audio-only devices. Some of these eligible phone interactions are:

  • Health risk assessments
  • Behavioral health interventions.
  • Diabetes management
  • Speech and hearing therapy
  • Medical nutrition services
  • Advance care planning

Benefits of Telehealth for Medicare Advantage Plans

Medicare Advantage plans are offered by private companies that are approved by Medicare. Compared to a traditional Medicare plan—called Original Medicare—they often offer more benefits. This may also be true with telehealth services.

If you have Medicare Advantage, check with your plan to see what telehealth benefits are offered.

What Is Medicare Reimbursement for Telehealth?

In most cases, you’ll pay the same for an appointment in person as you would for one by video or phone. At Oak Street Health, a primary care facility for seniors with 10 community centers in Philadelphia, all our doctors and other healthcare providers accept Medicare, Medicare Advantage, and Medicaid plans. We provide both in-person and virtual visits to give you more options for care. We can also help you determine which telehealth services your insurance plan will cover.

Using Telehealth for Primary Care

If you’ve never done a virtual visit before, you might have some questions. It might seem strange at first, but when you can’t make it to your closest primary care location, meeting by video can be a great way to connect for many types of appointments without needing to leave your home.

At Oak Street Health, we can walk you through the process step by step. If you have questions about our telehealth services, call (844) 741-2144.

Getting Ready for Your Telehealth Appointment

Here are a few helpful tips if you’re preparing for your first telehealth video appointment:

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit where you won’t be distracted.
  • Make sure your computer’s battery is charged. You don’t want to have to go searching for the charging cord during the middle of your appointment!
  • Write down any questions you want to ask.
  • Have your medications in front of you.

Troubleshooting Your Telehealth Visit

To have the best quality possible during your video call, you can do a few things:

  • Verify that your internet connection is strong. You may need to move closer to the WiFi router, if you have one.
  • Close any unused programs on your computer. They can slow down your computer.
  • Make sure you update to the latest version of the internet browser you’re using. Chrome and Safari typically work the best.

Face-to-face interaction is nice to have, but quite often, a virtual visit can be efficient and just as effective.