Information technology and the internet have revolutionized medicine. From electronic databases that consolidate patient records to easily accessible medical information online and new machines and medicines that are saving lives every day, it’s hard to find an aspect of healthcare untouched by the vast power of IT innovation. And today, one of the most exciting technology trends for patients is telemedicine.

What Is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine means connecting a patient with a healthcare provider who isn’t in the same room. In the past, telemedicine was conducted over the phone. Today, it is quicker, easier, and more effective than ever thanks to online and mobile tools like Skype, FaceTime, WeChat, and other video conferencing programs and smartphone apps.

How Does Modern Telemedicine Work?

During an online healthcare consultation, patients can talk about their symptoms and receive an immediate diagnosis from the medical professional with whom they're chatting—whether it's a dentist, a pediatrician, or a general care practitioner. Once a diagnosis has been made, the doctor can offer basic care advice and, if needed, write a prescription and send it to the patient’s nearest pharmacy.

Most telemedical appointments can be scheduled in advance or with no warning at all and last just a few minutes, making them a godsend for busy employees or parents with young children.

In many places, patients are lucky enough to be able to schedule virtual consultations with their regular doctor. At the same time, patients are also beginning to take advantage of new services that connect them to qualified doctors they’ve never met in person. The Doctor on Demand app, for example, connects users to certified physicians, psychologists, and other medical professionals. They can consult a list of doctors who are available, choose one they like, have a video consultation with them, and pay through the app (see How Your Health Insurance Pays Health Care Expenses to learn more about paying for healthcare). Although the idea of working with an unknown doctor may seem strange, fans of online telemedicine say they love the convenience of a virtual visit, especially when it means less exposure to a sneeze-filled physician’s waiting room.

But What About Insurance?

Aetna is one insurance company that is already working on integrating telemedicine into its policies, first in the United States and then outside of it. Other companies, such as UnitedHealthcare, have also said that they will cover virtual visits to the doctor.

Although insurers are currently exploring the process of covering the costs of third-party medical sites, insurance companies might, in the future, develop their own technological platforms for digital doctor visits.

As you may expect, telemedicine is quickly gaining popularity among those who have temporarily relocated or are working abroad. Virtual consultations allow people living away from home to see their regular doctor, even when they are halfway around the world. Telemedicine is also an option for those who don’t mind seeing local doctors, but who would like to consult a physician from their home country—whether because they’re finding it difficult to navigate the healthcare system of their new residence or simply because they feel more comfortable speaking with a professional from their home country.

However, in order to take advantage of all the benefits telemedicine has to offer, those living abroad must make sure that they hold an appropriate insurance policy that keeps them covered for online consultations, wherever they are in the world. With the right international insurance policy, patients can get the most from virtual doctor visits and keep prices reasonable (find out what are The Key Differences Between Local and International Health Insurance).

And, as an important bonus, the right international insurance policy means that if an emergency occurs and telemedicine can’t help, the patient is still covered for local, in-person medical care in their current country of residence.