Even though stay-at-home restrictions are slowly starting to lift across the country, the landscape of healthcare might be forever changed following the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine appointments, where you can chat with your doctor about any updates to or questions about your health with a click of a button, might be here to stay.
For women’s healthcare, including birth control, pregnancy, and postpartum care, there are extra layers of nuance—not every appointment is ideal and appropriate for a video visit, but other appointments may work better via telehealth. “We are hopeful that we see telemedicine and women’s health care stick around forever because there are some visits or some situations that we think are just better or as evenly served through telemedicine, allowing us to prioritize other types of visits that have to happen in person in the four walls of the clinic,” says Lisa Shah, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Advantia Health. Whether you’re healthy and just need to schedule your annual appointment, or are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, here’s how to navigate telehealth appointments with your OB-GYN.
For Your Annual Checkup
During the height of the pandemic, you may have passed your annual appointment with your OB-GYN. If you’ve already delayed your appointment for a couple of months, it’s a good idea to reschedule it now for an in-office visit (provided that you’re healthy and have not been exposed to the coronavirus), following CDC guidelines like wearing a mask, and also waiting in your car before the visit, says Sweta Patel, DO, an OB-GYN with Advantia Health. Your doctor will want to focus on preventative healthcare, including any necessary blood work or lab work like urine tests.
Plus, Dr. Shah adds, if you’re due for a pap smear, it’s not a good idea to push that off any further, and it can’t be done via telemedicine. But if you’ve had a couple of negative pap smears recently and don’t need one, or if your health hasn’t changed overall, you can choose to assess anything, including birth control, menopause, or mental wellness, with your doctor via telemedicine, says Dr. Shah.
If You Need HPV or Other STI Testing
In the event that you’re concerned about symptoms of HPV or another STI, make an appointment with your OB-GYN to see them in person. Depending on whether you’re over or under 30, you may have a greater risk of contracting an STI like HPV (people in their twenties are more likely to have more partners and therefore more potential exposure to STIs), Dr. Patel explains. It’s important to assess your own risk. Especially if you have an infection that persists after age 30, now is not the time to delay your appointment with your OB-GYN.
For Other Abnormalities In Your Breast or Vaginal Health
It depends on exactly what’s going on with your body. There are certain vaginal and cervical infections, including bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections, that can have similar symptoms to certain STIs, Dr. Patel says. It is easiest for your doctor to assess these symptoms, which could include rashes, swelling, or burning, in person. But if you decide to bring up a potential infection during a telemedicine call, your OB-GYN will help you decide the proper next steps. “Based on the patient’s history of prior infections or current symptoms, we would be able to conclude what’s the most possible scenario in that situation and treat them accordingly. If there’s no improvement, we would definitely bring them in for further exams,” says Dr. Patel.
Breast health is also an important piece of your overall health. You can certainly describe any new lumps, bumps, or cysts in your breasts via telehealth. Or, it’s fair game for you to use your phone to show your doctor what’s going on if you’re comfortable doing so. “There actually are not rules about ‘panning the camera down.’ You can examine what you can examine, as long as you as a provider feel like you can get a good accurate view,” Dr. Shah says. Many patients have been willing to demonstrate breast lumps, or an abnormal discharge, or whatever the case may be, during their telehealth appointment, she adds; others may feel better making an in-person appointment to show their doctor.
If You’re Pregnant
For any patients who are newly pregnant (as in, just took a positive pregnancy test at home), you should make an in-person appointment with your doctor for an exam and ultrasound, Dr. Patel says. “It’s important to make sure it’s a healthy pregnancy. Once we’ve established that, we can utilize telehealth to provide remote obstetrical care and can check in periodically,” says Dr. Patel.
Ultrasounds definitely need to happen in person, as does some lab work. Some blood and urine tests can take place at a remote lab, Dr. Patel says, but it is important that you get enough face time with your doctor for exams during your pregnancy, to check in on the growth of the baby.
For a Mental Health-Related Issue
Emotional and mental health during the pandemic has been vastly important, and telehealth demands have reflected that, the doctors say. (ACOG also recommends that you have a telemedicine appointment if you’re experiencing abuse at home or intimate partner violence during quarantine). Between social workers, volunteers doing mental health counseling, and OB-GYNs helping women through stress, anxiety, depression, and domestic violence, the Advantia Health team is seeing patients really gravitate toward these services, Dr. Shah says.
It seems as though there’s somewhat of a “filter” for you behind the camera of a telehealth call, the doctors say, to discuss anxiety, depression, or any violence or abuse you might be experiencing in a discreet manner. Of course, it’s important to speak to a mental health specialist or therapist as well, but your OB-GYN is also there for you.
Will Telehealth Become The Norm?
In some cases, telemedicine will stick around and become the default method of care if you’re in a pinch to renew a birth control prescription (it can be done all electronically, Dr. Patel says) or discuss switching birth control methods. For pregnant women, major health concerns, and medical emergencies, in-person care will always take precedence.
But young, healthy patients who might be away at college can continue their care with their preferred provider, Dr. Patel says. Or, if you’re traveling, have to quickly get back to work, or unable to plan for childcare, it’s worth your while to schedule your appointment virtually. While we don’t know exactly what the future will bring, OB-GYNs are committed to using telemedicine to serve patients and make their lives more convenient.