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A Guide for the Consumer of Online Telemedicine or Virtual Health Care Visits

The term “telemedicine” covers a wide array of health services that are provided via telecommunications technology. Related terms include telehealth, connected care, mobile health and ehealth. Much of telemedicine covers clinical services provided between health professionals and medical institutions or other health providers. The Internet offers consumers access to a wealth of health care information, services and now in many cases allows access to a qualified health professional. 

SafeOnlineHealth.org is brought to you by the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), the leading international resource and advocate promoting the use of advanced remote medical technologies. ATA and its diverse membership, works to fully integrate telemedicine into transformed health care systems to improve quality, equity and affordability of health care throughout the world. 

Seeking Online Health Care Services

As a consumer of health care services, you have more choices today than ever before for acquiring health care services. Using your computer, laptop, iPad, smart phone or telephone, and the Internet you can “connect” with a wide variety of health care providers from the convenience of your home or office.   “Remote” delivery of health services is called “telemedicine.”  Many health care professionals are providing safe, high quality, online or virtual telemedicine services directly to patients or consumers for a wide variety of health concerns including primary care and specialty services.  This service may be provided by your own physician, through a local health system, an employer or insurer or by an independent online medical service.

Telemedicine delivers quality healthcare anywhere, any time.

What you need to know to get safe online patient care

Selecting a high quality, health care provider for “online” service delivery can be difficult. How do you know if your health care provider has an appropriate medical license, or that he/she is properly trained in telemedicine and follows best practices for making sure your patient consultation is private and secure, or that other standards and relevant laws are being followed?

Look for an American Telemedicine Association accredited service

For over 20 years, ATA's mission as a non-profit organization has been the safe and equitable deployment of telemedicine. Designed by experts in the field, ATA’s Accreditation Program for Online Patient Consultations has been developed to establish minimum criteria regarding the security of patient information, transparency in pricing and operations, qualifications and licensing of providers and clinical practices and guidelines. ATA’s accredited organizations demonstrate a commitment to excellence and to its customers.

Be an informed consumer

Here are 10 features to look for in your selection of online health care services:

  1. Access to information about the credentials and qualifications of the health care provider(s).
  2. Assurances that your visit and patient information, records and documentation are kept secure and private including communications with anyone outside the organization such as other providers.
  3. Access to comprehensive information about the services to be delivered, providers, and scope of care.
  4. Access to the organization’s ethical principles.
  5. Access to a patient portal from which you can see your medical records.
  6. A choice of health care providers in non-emergency situations if the organization has more than one provider.
  7. The ability to make or change your appointments and to change providers if requested.
  8. Access to information about the organization including identification of the legal entity and/or operator(s) of the organization and any relevant commercial affiliation(s) with other groups, products or services.
  9. A means to provide your feedback regarding the quality of information and services and to register any complaints you may have.
  10. Access to general health care information about specific disorders, conditions or pertinent factors to assist you in making informed decisions about your care.

Watch out for unaccredited sites selling a specific treatment or service

It is a widely recognized conflict of interest for health professionals that prescribe medicines to have any direct financial relationship with an entity that sells those medications.  Therefore, consumers are cautioned against obtaining prescribed medicines from Web sites that offer both diagnosis of condition and direct sales of the prescribed medicine.  In other cases, sites may only be set up to sell a specific treatment or medication or other “miracle treatment.”  ATA only recognizes sites that provide objective, expert source of services that are not affiliated with any specific product.


Seeking Online Health and Medical Information

Consumers should make sure that Web sites used to obtain information about health and medicine are provided by a reliable and credible source such as recognized and credentialed health care providers, and use sources that are based on qualified authorities.  The source of the information should be clearly labeled and annotated.  Many sites include guidelines for editorial content review, posting dates, and sources.

Know the affiliations

ATA endorses the concept of professional societies accrediting Web sites that provide consumers health and medical information.   Consumers should only seek sites that use recognized and qualified professionals as the advisors and authors of information and advice.  Avoid sites that are only set up to sell a specific treatment or medication.  In some cases, commercial interests such as a drug or device manufacturer may sponsor or contribute information to a Web site.  Consumers should look for assurances that the information provided in these cases is objective and does not favor the sponsor’s products.

Protect your privacy

Health and medical Web sites have a particular obligation to protect the privacy and confidentiality of individuals. Patients and individuals with interest in particular medical conditions should feel confident in obtaining information and using resources on the site, without concern that such use will be identified with them without their permission.  Consumers should look for a link to the privacy policy of the Web site.

ATA Seal of Accreditation

Look for the ATA Seal of Accreditation on the website or platform for the organization or service provider you “connect” with for your online health care needs.   

For more information about the ATA Accreditation for Online Patient Consultations, please contact ATA at
 info@safeonlinehealth.org or 202.223.3333.


To learn more about the American Telemedicine Association, go to 
www.americantelemed.org