If nothing else, coronavirus is teaching us how to live remotely, work and learn remotely, and perhaps even go to the doctor...online. WHQR looks into how telehealth or telemedicine is already changing healthcare.
It's hard to know what the new normal will look like—whenever we get there—but going to the doctor may never be the same. Dr. Sarah Gore is an OB/GYN at Wilmington Health.
“One of the great things about the coronavirus is that we have significantly accelerated telemedicine. We have been trying to do telemedicine as a nation for years, and we've just hit hurdle after hurdle, and thanks to the coronavirus all those hurdles were dropped and we were able to do telemedicine literally within a week.”
Jen Pollard, Director of Practice Operations for NHRMC Physician Group, agrees – the coronavirus sped up the process for virtual appointments:
"So we started our rollout of telehealth services just two months ago; it has been widely accepted by both our providers and our patients. And there were several regulatory changes that were made, especially with Health and Human Services and Medicare, allowing this expansion of telehealth services.”
And in this new telehealth world, you’ll probably spend less time in a waiting room:
"At NHRMC, we are screening 100% of our patients for their upcoming appointments.[...]we're doing an outreach call to them, and we're talking to them about the virtual space and talking to them about their ability to be able to connect with their provider without having to come into the office.”
But some patients do prefer in-person visits – and they can be reluctant to sign on to telehealth.
Jeff James is the CEO of Wilmington Health – and he says this initial uneasiness will likely dissipate over time.
“My guess is in just a few years, that’ll be a thing of the past, and all patients will be very familiar and comfortable with at least some level of telehealth. [...] There are some technology challenges that occur, because of this newness on both sides, between the provider as well as the patients. But those things will get worked out shortly, and it’s going to be part of mainstream medicine from this point forward. There’s very little doubt.”
And there are signs that these appointments may even bridge some health inequities gaps, according to Jen Pollard of the NHRMC Physician Group:
“And if you look at from a health equity perspective, we have patients that could have a transportation barrier, so they live in a rural area or they just can’t get a ride into the office that day, so instead of canceling that appointment, we have the ability to see them in their homes through a virtual visit.”
Pollard says even patients with chronic illnesses can schedule some of their visits virtually. And that care providers can monitor how they take their own vitals:
“They can see that the patient is taking their blood pressure correctly. They didn’t cross their feet when they took their blood pressure. They’re doing their weight and their heart monitoring while they’re being watched by a clinician.”
And after this explosion in telehealth -- the next one, Pollard says, is in remote monitoring health devices.
Here's a look at the choice between local teleheath services and national ones:
If you go through your insurance company to make an appointment with a doctor, you might be referred to a national telehealth company, like Teladoc, American Well, or Doctors on Demand.
But Jeff James, CEO of Wilmington Health, says you now have a choice...you can also make a virtual appointment locally.
“And the reason for that is simply continuity of care. [...] If it’s a national telehealth service, they have no connection with the local health care community. And if they can’t solve the patient’s needs, they’re likely to send them to the emergency room. And the patient will incur a very significant charge for that.”
James also says that the area’s doctors may have more knowledge of community health care resources.
“They may very well send them to their own urgent care or bring the patient into their offices themselves, and certainly, being able to perform additional diagnostics that could avoid unnecessary medications such as antibiotics.”
In the long run, James says he foresees telehealth services driving down the cost of healthcare.