How to Get a House Call in the Time of COVID-19

If you’re worried about the coronavirus, you may be able to get healthcare at home, either virtually or in person

Senior woman is speaking with doctor about flu symptoms from her living room iStock-1168122599

If you’re not feeling well and want to see a doctor, you may be concerned that going to a physician’s office, an urgent care facility, or a hospital could expose you to COVID-19.

“People are understandably worried that they are going to get sick if they go to the doctor,” says Ateev Mehrotra, M.D., an associate professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School who conducts research on the use of telemedicine to improve healthcare. “This is a situation where going to get care can put you more at risk, and people may want to seek other options.”

In March, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began calling for hospital and healthcare providers to increase the use of telehealth services to ease pressure on healthcare facilities and treat people quarantined at home, as well as to reduce exposure risks for those who don’t have the virus.

And now, there are a host of options for receiving non-emergency care in your own home, from a medical doctor, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, or nurse, depending on your particular health concerns.

Possibilities range from on-demand house calls you request through an app to telemedicine services, such as virtual doctor visits via smartphone or computer. Some services will diagnose you via video consultation, then determine whether you need to see an in-person provider at home.

More on the Coronavirus

Telemedicine can also be as simple as emails or phone calls with your regular doctor or having a healthcare provider email you a treatment plan based on your answers to a symptom questionnaire you fill out online, Mehrotra says.

House call and telemedicine services are generally used for issues such as minor burns and cuts, conjunctivitis, back strains, rashes, flu, and urinary tract infections. House call providers can also help people manage chronic conditions like high blood pressure and provide preventive care such as vaccines.

Home healthcare is appropriate even for many people diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC, because the majority are only mildly to moderately ill and can manage their symptoms at home.

And people are taking advantage of these opportunities. A representative for Kaiser Permanente, a large integrated care organization, says it is conducting approximately 8,000 televisits a day. And Nick Desai, CEO of the app-based Heal, says, “We are seeing a 340 percent increase in demand for Heal telemedicine and house call services.”

Many of the services above are covered by insurance. Of course, you may still have copays, coinsurance, or deductibles, but some fees, like copays, may be lower than those for in-person doctor’s visits. And if you don’t have insurance, you may be able to choose from a menu of services with flat fees, which run from about $50 to $200, depending on your medical needs.

5 Ways to Get Healthcare at Home

Your regular doctor. Your physician may not be able to make an old-fashioned home visit, but there’s a lot she can do by phone or by video chat via computer, tablet, or smartphone. Just under 30 percent of doctors used such telemedicine and virtual visit tools before the coronavirus pandemic, but that number is now expected to rise.

Even if your doc isn’t online yet, many will answer follow-up questions, refill prescriptions, or advise you on managing a chronic condition by phone, email, or text, or through the office’s patient portal.

Your health insurer. You may have access to at-home healthcare through your health insurance. Nearly 9 out of 10 employers with 500 or more workers that provide health insurance have a telemedicine program.

Insurers typically partner with outside vendors such as Teladoc Health, a network of primary care physicians who diagnose routine, non-emergency medical problems via the telephone or video. They can also prescribe medications, send your records to your regular doctor, and make referrals, and are available around the clock seven days a week.

Right now, Teladoc and other telehealth companies are touting themselves as a first stop for coronavirus information, and sometimes other resources as well. Amwell, another telemedicine company that often works with employers and health insurance plans, for instance, now has an infection control officer on call at all times.

For those without insurance, many of these telemedicine services charge a flat fee. Amwell, for example, charges $69 for an online urgent care visit and can provide prescriptions and recommendations for in-person follow-ups with specialists. MDLive urgent care consultations are $75 without insurance.

Local urgent care and walk-in retail clinics. An increasing number of these kinds of facilities, which may be freestanding or located in or next to chain pharmacies or big box stores, are offering video consults that allow you to get in touch with a healthcare provider quickly.

CVS, for example, which operates more than 1,000 MinuteClinics inside its stores, has video visits 24/7 for $59. These visits aren’t covered by insurance, but you can pay for them with money from a flexible spending account or health savings account, if you have one.

Through Westmed, a chain of urgent care clinics in New York and Connecticut, you can get a virtual phone or video consult between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Westmed takes insurance and charges $49 for those without coverage.

House calls on demand. The old-fashioned house call is making a comeback, fueled by advances like portable X-ray machines and apps that can make your cell phone function like an ultrasound machine. This option may be especially useful for people who are too ill to get to a doctor, and currently, those who are quarantined at home.

The on-demand house call company Heal promises to get a healthcare provider to your home within a few hours between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. While Heal’s doctors can’t test for COVID-19, they can refer symptomatic patients to state and federal health officials. Heal, which operates in more than a dozen cities, accepts many insurance plans, but if yours isn’t covered, the cost is $159.

Remedy, another on-demand house call service, says it will send a healthcare provider to your home within 2 hours. It takes insurance, but if you don’t have coverage, it charges $199 for a house call.

High-tech healthcare hybrids. A growing number of technology companies moving into the healthcare space offer both virtual and in-person care. These hybrids are mainly in major metropolitan areas, and some are still small.

Forward, for example, which launched in 2016, is based in San Francisco and also has several locations in Southern California, New York City, and Washington, D.C. It doesn’t accept insurance, instead charging a $149-per-month fee for 24/7 remote access to its doctors, as well as unlimited in-person doctor visits.

One Medical, a network of primary clinic providers that offers virtual and in-person care, is larger, with 70 clinics in nine cities. It accepts insurance but charges a $199 fee on top of that to use its services. It also has relationships with 6,000 employers who cover the membership fee for workers. Carbon Health, which is based in California, accepts many insurance plans and also offers a virtual visit for a $49 flat fee.

Know the Limitations

Of course, getting care outside a traditional healthcare facility has its limits. “I can ask someone about their breathing, but I can’t look into their lungs,” Mehrotra says. “A telephone or video call can be a good place to start, but where you get care really depends on the condition being addressed.”

Those limitations are especially important to keep in mind right now. “The symptoms of COVID-19 are difficult to differentiate from those of the typical seasonal flu or a common cold,” says Will Kimbrough, M.D., senior medical director of clinical services at One Medical.

At all times, checking with a telehealth provider or calling your doctor can help you decide whether you need to be seen in an office setting or an emergency room, or can safely remain at home, Kimbrough says.

If you suspect an emergency in your household, call 911 right away. That includes difficulty breathing, chest pain or other severe pain (especially abdominal), broken bones, coughing up or vomiting blood, unresponsiveness, bleeding that can’t be stopped with direct pressure, and signs of a stroke, such as facial drooping, arm weakness, and speech difficulty.

Additional reporting by Jessica Branch

Donna Rosato

As a journalist on the special projects team at Consumer Reports, I investigate issues that affect consumers' health, finances, privacy, and safety. My particular focus is on helping people untangle problems with medical bills, cover steep healthcare costs, finance the skyrocketing cost of college, and manage student debt. I was previously a writer at Money magazine, wrote for The New York Times and was a business reporter at USA Today. If you have a tip, follow me on  Twitter (@RosatoDonna).