Spurred by COVID-19 and all its accompanying concerns, TRICARE expanded its telemedicine offerings to military families in hopes of making doctor visits easier, quicker and safer.
Telemedicine (sometimes called telehealth) is when healthcare providers communicate with patients and their families through phone conversation, texts or video conferencing platforms like Zoom. Such virtual caregiving eliminates anxiety in crowded or unhygienic waiting rooms, as well as the time and money spent traveling.
“Patients don’t always need to see a healthcare provider face to face, and sometimes it’s inconvenient or impossible to schedule a face-to-face appointment,” said Army Capt. John Bockmann, a physician assistant. “We have this problem while deployed anyway, so building our telemedicine capability makes a lot of sense.”
TRICARE now covers telemedicine visits, waives cost-shares and copayments for all covered services and allows more providers to offer telemedicine options. The benefit can be used for needs like office visits, preventive health screenings, mental health services and certain services for specific conditions like end-stage renal disease and autism.
Marine spouse Molly Dee used telemedicine multiple times since March 2020. Right after the world locked down, she noticed a lump on her son’s neck. But when she tried to get him seen, base providers told her she would have to take him to the emergency room, as no doctor was examining patients unless the problem was life-threatening.
“I was incredibly upset that they wouldn’t even let me send a photo of my son’s neck,” Dee said.
Thankfully, she was directed to a telemedicine appointment instead.
“I was very happy for my telemedicine appointment because all I wanted was a referral to dermatology, which they sent in for me.”
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Rubi Meltz is an Army spouse whose husband is stationed at rural Fort Huachuca near the Mexican border. Recently, three of her children were scheduled for appointments in Phoenix — a full four hours away — but Meltz couldn’t find childcare for her fourth. So, she turned to telemedicine.
“It’s awkward for children who do not like to sit in front of a screen or feel weird showing their bellies and backs to a phone,” Meltz explained. “But I appreciated the saved trip.”
The future of virtual doctor visits
Telemedicine isn’t a whenever-you-want catchall for every sort of medical service. Depending on the TRICARE plan, patients may first need a referral, like with active-duty service members who need referrals for “telemental health care” (psychotherapy, psychiatric diagnostic interviews and exams and medication management). Additionally, for those stationed OCONUS, telemedicine must be legal in the host nation and the provider licensed to practice in that location.
Bockmann sees strong growth in telemedicine’s role in modern healthcare.
“Telemedicine is really only good for a certain type of low-acuity, basic appointment. But if it spreads across the DOD — and I think it will — it’ll be here to stay,” he said. “It’s cheaper, it extends our geographical reach, it’s pandemic-friendly, and the institutional inertia involved in implementing it across the DOD means it’s likely to achieve critical, self-sustaining mass as opposed to withering away.”
That’s perfectly alright with Dee, who especially hopes telemedicine can help those with mental health needs.
“As long as the providers help you, it’s great,” she said. “There’s nothing worse than needing antibiotics and waiting on the doctor, only to have them say you need to go to the ER or urgent care.”
In a world where almost everything seems to be virtual, Bockmann asked, why not healthcare, too?
“Keep in mind, we’ve done ‘telemedicine’ for a long time with T-cons (telephone conferences), and most everyone uses videoconferencing socially or professionally,” he said. “I think this is a natural next step.”
More information on TRICARE’s telemedicine offerings.