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healthcare system

Virtual Care: Three Things That May Surprise You

Oftentimes scheduling and attending a doctor’s office visit can be challenging. It may involve juggling work and childcare schedules, lengthy travel time and time spent sitting in a crowded waiting room.

It’s no wonder virtual care (also known as remote care, telehealth, telemedicine or online visits) is growing in popularity. Instead of an in-person visit, virtual care uses technology, including tablets, smartphones and personal computers, to connect you with care providers. Some of the obvious advantages are convenience, quick access to care and time savings. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) pointed out that a virtual visit saves 106 minutes on average, compared to an in-person appointment.

Further, virtual visits often can cost as low as $40 or $50 per visit, much less than an urgent care or emergency room visit, and many insurance companies are now covering them.

Virtual care makes sense for a variety of conditions, from treating colds and the flu to rashes, migraines and allergies. A virtual visit can be especially handy during times when it’s otherwise difficult to seek care, such as during a major storm. Even the federal government is beginning to recognize the value of virtual care. In 2017, Congress expanded insurance and Medicare payments for a variety of telehealth programs, enabling more people to access this type of care.

Beyond the convenience and time savings, here are three other features of virtual visits that may surprise you:

  • It can be just as personal – if not more so – than an in-person visit. While you may be concerned about getting advice through a video screen rather than in person, doctors who provide virtual care are well-trained to make these appointments an “all-about-you” experience. They can attend to your concerns without distraction, and examine and treat you for a variety of conditions ranging from sinus problems to pink eye. You receive direct, one-on-one attention and avoid having to sit with other sick people prior to your appointment. 
  • You can show doctors your medications. How often have you arrived at your doctor’s office, only to realize you forgot to bring a list of your current medications and dosages? When you meet with a doctor virtually, you can simply show them, in real time, your vitamins, supplements, medications and any equipment you are using, such as wheelchairs or nebulizers. 
  • Virtual care is popping up in more places. Your local doctor may already offer this service, or may sometime soon, for routine care or to manage a chronic condition, such as diabetes or congestive heart failure. And given the shortage of mental health services in many locations – nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in regions with a shortage of behavioral health providers – virtual care can be a quicker way to receive treatment for a range of conditions, including stress, addiction, depression, loss and grief.

As technology continues to permeate all aspects of our lives, you’ll likely experience a virtual health visit, if you haven’t already. Check with your health plan to see if virtual visits are covered and whether you can register for them in advance. It will make your life easier and help you quickly get you the care you need – all within the comfort of your home.

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Tips to Help Prevent and Treat Hearing Loss

More than 90 percent of Americans know that exposure to loud sounds can cause hearing loss; however, just 50 percent correctly recognized that both one-time exposure to a loud sound and cumulative exposure to moderately loud sounds can harm hearing health, according to a recent UnitedHealthcare survey.

Hearing loss affects more than 48 million people nationwide, and it could become even more widespread in the coming years: more than 1.1 billion young adults worldwide are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to a study by the World Health Organization.

These statistics are a reminder for people to check their hearing health – and that of their loved ones – to help prevent the condition or, if necessary, obtain treatment. Hearing health is crucial to overall health, as research shows hearing loss is associated with social isolation, dementia, depression and increased risk of falls.

To help encourage better hearing health in 2019, consider these tips:

  • Limit exposure to loud noises: People should limit their exposure to loud sounds, such as music, lawn mowers or motorcycles, to no more than 20 minutes at a time. If attending a football game or music concert, consider wearing ear protection (i.e. ear plugs). This is especially true for young people, as children’s ears are more susceptible to harm caused by exposure to loud sounds. While hearing loss is more common among older Americans, younger people can also be affected: about 20 percent of people over age 12 experience some level of hearing loss. 
  • Opt for noise-cancelling headphones: One factor spurring the increased risk of noise-induced hearing loss is the growing popularity of earbuds. People should consider over-the-ear headphones – especially models with noise-cancelling properties – as those are generally considered a better option than earbuds. When using earbuds, follow the “60/60 rule,” which means listening for no more than 60 minutes at a time and at no more than 60 percent of the player’s maximum volume. If someone else can hear your music while you’re using earbuds, it’s an indication of excessive volume. 
  • Talk to a health professional and schedule a hearing test: Common signs of hearing loss include turning up the volume on the TV or radio to levels that others find too loud, having trouble hearing people on the phone, and difficulty following conversations in noisy environments. Some primary care physicians are starting to offer hearing testing, making it more convenient to follow recommended guidelines, which includes being screened at least every decade through age 50 and then at three-year intervals thereafter. 
  • Explore ways to save on hearing aids: Hearing aids can be expensive, but more affordable options are available. Direct-to-consumer hearing aids can enable people to save 60 percent or more compared to devices sold through traditional channels. And a growing number of health plans are offering coverage for hearing aids, including through some Medicare Advantage and employer-sponsored benefit plans. 
  • Use effective communication strategies: Hearing aids are more helpful when people use effective communication strategies, such as watching lip movements and facial expressions, and selecting settings that are “hearing friendly.” For example, people with hearing loss should opt for restaurants that are relatively quiet and go at times that aren’t as busy. Another strategy is to select a table along a wall or in a corner, which will reduce background noise.

Looking to help reduce your health care costs in 2019? Consider these 5 money-saving tips

For many people, the start of a new year is a customary time to assess their health and finances. And for most Texans, new health plan benefits begin in January, so now is an ideal time to learn how your health plan works.

Here are five tips that may lead you to better health and even help save you money this year and beyond.

Understand your health plan
It sounds basic, but understanding your health plan before you need to use your benefits can save you a lot of time, stress and money. Learn what your health plan covers – including medical, pharmacy and preventive benefits. When in doubt, call the number on your health plan ID card to get the most up-to-date information.

Also, it’s a good time to make sure you understand health plan terms such as deductible, copay, coinsurance and out-of-pocket limit. If you need a refresher, there are resources online such as the Just Plain Clear Glossary to help you learn and understand these terms.

Ask about lower-cost prescriptions
If you’re worried about the cost of a medication, mention your price concerns to your doctor who can help find the most appropriate and affordable option for you. Many doctors are now using technology that enables them to view precise medication costs in real time before leaving the exam room. You may be surprised to learn that generic medications often are more affordable, and just as safe and effective as their brand-name equivalents.

In addition, some pharmacy benefit plans now offer discounts at the point of sale by providing savings from pharmacy manufacturer rebates directly to consumers. These discounts could potentially lower your out-of-pocket costs on select medications.  

Stay “in network”
One way to help keep costs down is to stay in your health plan’s care provider network, which consists of the doctors, specialists, hospitals and other care facilities with whom your health plan has contracted to provide health care services. Your insurance company has agreed to pay those health care providers a certain amount of money for your visits – usually a discounted rate. Because of those discounts, you usually pay less when you see a health care provider in the network vs. one who’s outside the network.

For out-of-network care providers, your insurance may cover only a fraction of the cost of care – or none at all – depending on your plan. Before you make your next appointment, check with your health plan to make sure the provider or facility is “in network.”

Know your care options before you go
If your health issue isn’t an emergency, visit your primary care doctor for care first. Your doctor knows you and your health history, can easily access your medical records, and can take care of many health needs, provide follow-up care or refer you to specialists.

If it’s not possible to visit your regular doctor, you may be able to receive fast, professional and lower-cost care at an urgent care center, a convenience care clinic or an online doctor visit. Online doctor visits are a great option for treating conditions such as colds, migraines and allergies. Online visits often can cost as low as $40 or $50 per visit, much less than a trip to urgent care or an emergency room.

Take advantage of wellness discounts and incentives
Many health plans now offer financial incentives that reward you for taking healthier actions such as completing a health survey, exercising, or meeting nationally recommended health benchmarks for cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, and no nicotine.

An increasing number of employers are offering wellness discounts and incentive-based wellness programs to support their employees’ efforts to help improve their health. These initiatives may also lead to increased employee satisfaction, productivity and reduced costs.

Image: Stock Photo