Online Medicine: What to Know Before You Sign Up

Health Insurance

By Cheryl Welch

The world of health care is changing rapidly thanks to new advances in technology. Innovations such as patient portals and telemedicine allow patients and doctors to connect in new ways. However, there are pros and cons to both services.

Patient portals

Medical practices across the country are rolling out patient portals, which are secure websites where patients can view, download and share their health information, including bloodwork and lab results. They can also contact staff and doctors via a messaging system and request medical records, prescription refills and appointments — all 24/7.

Mary*, an RN in New York, loves using patient portals. She typically works overnight shifts and isn’t awake during normal business hours, so the service allows her to take care of medical tasks when it’s convenient. For example, she receives an appointment time within three days of requesting one via the portal.

Still, other patients, even the most technologically savvy, find these portals to be unfriendly. And some note that some portals aren’t mobile friendly, limiting their usefulness for patients on the go. They can also come with hidden costs. Another client, Ashley, was offered access to a free patient portal and told to email her child’s pediatrician with any questions — but later received bills for $50 per email.


Some medical practitioners also offer telemedicine, or patient appointments via telecommunications technologies such as Skype. This service increases access to medical care in underserved regions and remote areas. It can also cut down on costs associated with traditional health care.

It’s a new process, but some states — including New York — already require insurance companies to cover telemedicine as they would in-office services. But doctors don’t necessarily advertise this to their patients. Visits can cost as little as $25 and help patients avoid in-person visits for routine ailments, but many don’t know they have the option.

Patient portals and telemedicine can benefit both patients and medical personnel, but doctors should do a better job of making both user-friendly, cost-effective experiences and publicizing their availability. In the meantime, patients should ask their practitioners and insurers about online medical services, including the costs involved, before diving in.