Telemedicine: Staying Well in the COVID-19 Era
As the spread of COVID-19 has forced patients to forego doctor visits and urgent care centers, people are turning toward telemedicine services that were already expanding before the outbreak.
Here’s what you need to know about telemedicine in the age of COVID-19.
You’re already likely using it
Now that social distancing is the order of the day, patients can still see their doctors and get the care they need in many cases without having to brave a waiting room full of other sick patients.
“The practice’s earliest use was for simple things,” said Richard Calderone, DO, an internal medicine and pediatric faculty physician at Forrest General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program. “Calling back patients about lab results, refilling chronic medications that don’t require lab work—we’ve always had a degree of this,” Dr. Calderone said. “Many patients have been using telehealth services for years without realizing it.”
If you have a chronic medical condition, now might be the time to consider new technologies that can be managed from home. The ubiquity of at-home medical devices like blood sugar and blood pressure monitors and even Apple Watches has made it easier for physicians to monitor chronic health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.
“Blood sugar logs would have been done in a hospital a generation before us,” Dr. Calderone said. “We can now use the equipment that many patients have access to at home. Why have someone drive-in, especially someone with a chronic medical issue who’s at risk to catch things in waiting rooms?”
It’s a big time saver
An obvious benefit to telemedicine is the time savings for patients and in some cases anyone who may have to help patients to and from the doctor’s office.
“A big part of pediatrics is vaccination and checking milestones. But there are a lot of developmental milestones we can check over the phone with video conferencing,” Dr. Calderone said. “Can you draw a circle, stack blocks? We can see if development is where it should be using virtual technology.”
If a doctor’s office visit is necessary—to get the vaccines for example—it could be a simple in-and-out visit instead of having to linger in the waiting room. Checking those milestones or healing progress could be set for another time by video conference.
For surgeons, up to 40 percent of their work can be done by telemedicine, said Darren Sommer, DO, founder of Innovator Health and assistant professor at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. That leads to less pressure on doctors between patients and more flexibility for everyone involved.
Dr. Sommer gave the example of a patient who lives far from a hospital who needs follow-up after a procedure, maybe to check swelling or an incision.
With telemedicine, there’s no need for a patient or their relative to drive 45 minutes to an hour and sit in a waiting room, when a quick visual inspection could be done by FaceTime or another app.
“There’s increased compliance and better follow-ups,” Dr. Sommer said. “I can spend more time talking to my patients through technology than in person because it’s a different pace. I know the next call isn’t for 20 minutes.”
It’s easier to see specialists
This is especially true in rural areas, where care can be far away and hospitals may not have the specialists that are more easily found in urban areas, said Dr. Sommer. Medical training has evolved over decades toward more specialized care. Doctors in rural areas who used to deliver babies, place pacemakers, and do primary-care visits fifty years ago now would not be able to do all three, Dr. Sommer said.
“As a result of this increasing specialization, the ability for hospitals to provide a broad range of doctors is becoming more difficult. Telemedicine allows for additional services,” Dr. Sommer said. “It gives access to physicians or certain expertise in an incremental way.”
Telemedicine will only become more common
Dr. Calderone predicts the shift in healthcare toward telemedicine will remain after the COVID-19 crisis ends. Devices are being developed and tested that will expand what doctors can do by phone or video. This area of healthcare is only likely to expand in the near future.
“Younger people coming up—it’s natural to utilize telehealth. People who grew up using FaceTime, using social media and being comfortable with internet-connected phones, it only makes sense for telehealth be part of the way they interact with medicine,” Dr. Calderone said. “I think one benefit of the healthcare system adjustment is that we’re going to see the liberalization of telehealth continue. The same level of care, and with some restrictions, but a lot more patient-friendly.”