Doctors are increasingly communicating with their patients online. Here are some tips for making the best use of the technology.

Generally, the most common digital doctor services are the simplest ones, like paying bills, sending lab results and scheduling appointments, and you will likely find these digital tools convenient once you start using them to avoid phone calls.

But patients are also using computers to deal with issues that usually require a trip to the doctor’s office, and the practice of online care has grown as more health insurers begin paying doctors for treating patients online.

There are a number of technologies that doctors are using for digital visits, and your insurer may require a particular format – typically not traditional email, which may not meet federal privacy requirements.

One version requires patients to fill out interactive questionnaires that automatically generate follow-up queries based on the symptoms patients describe. The answers go to the patient’s doctor, who typically responds within a day.

Another type of digital doctor visit is more like secure email, with patients typing up a free-form message, often sent through a special Web site. Physicians often follow up with questions and then a written response within 24 hours.

Another option is live online visits, using technology that allows for real-time interaction between doctors and patients, using Web video, live chat or a phone conversation connected through a secure computer system.

Doctors who offer digital visits say they generally are most effective for treating mild, simple conditions, often when patients are too busy or too far away to come to the office. Another advantage for some patients is that doctors charge far less for digital visits than for the in-person version. Often the fee is around $20 to $35. If you are uninsured or have a high-deductible health plan, you may want to consider a digital doctor visit.

Ailments most frequently treated online include sinus problems, cold and flu symptoms, urinary infections and coughs. Other common conditions are back pain and sleep issues.

Doctors also use digital communication to track patients with chronic conditions like diabetes who can regularly send in their blood-sugar readings. If you have high blood pressure or heart failure, for instance, you might be a good candidate for such online monitoring. Some doctors even use digital tools to stay in touch with patients taking psychiatric drugs such as antidepressants, tweaking their doses based on the patient’s description of his or her status.

But there are certain conditions that physicians typically won’t treat through online advice, particularly chest pain or other symptoms that may signal an emergency. Some state medical boards have rules that limit the use of digital visits, including requiring that doctors see patients in person before prescribing drugs. Even with minor ailments, many physicians will offer digital advice only to regular patients, for liability reasons and also because they feel that in-person visits are important to discuss broader health issues.

Conditions that may be ambiguous don’t lend themselves to online diagnosis. Some doctors say they won’t diagnose complaints such as vertigo and ear aches without an exam. Another no-no for some physicians is abdominal pain, which could be a sign of anything from appendicitis to an aneurysm.

Of course, patients can’t always tell what’s urgent. Doctors say that a good rule of thumb is that if you would have gone to the emergency room in the pre-digital world, you should still go to the emergency room.

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