Coronavirus Pandemic Leads to Surge in Telemedicine

June 2nd, 2020
By: Content Staff

If you believe that more patients should be able to visit with their doctors, physical therapists and occupational therapists online or over the phone, then the coronavirus pandemic has bolstered your argument. The problem is that it’s bolstered the other side’s argument too, with telemedicine sometimes proving too clumsy or inaccessible for patients to get adequate care.

COVID-19 has spurred a rapid shift to telemedicine, revealing both the benefits and limitations of technology in providing health care to patients remotely. On the positive side, doctors, PTs and OTs may be able to see more patients in a day, remote visits eliminate the chance of spreading COVID-19, patients may have to pay less, and patients who rarely see a doctor may have increased access.

On the negative side, communication suffers when it’s not face to face, some patients lack reliable WiFi service or privacy at home, and it can be difficult for patients to repeatedly reposition their mobile devices so PTs or OTs can watch them exercise at home.

The news website DCist, which covers Washington, D.C., interviewed several local health-care providers and patients about their experiences with telemedicine, and the results were mixed. One PT patient liked the idea of paying only $35 per virtual appointment but found that doing exercises for her bum hip using Zoom on her iPad amounted to “a lot of camera maneuvering and guesswork” with her boyfriend.

Another patient suffered embarrassment due to a poor WiFi connection, according to DCist. Unable to have a clear conversation with her dermatologist indoors, she stepped outside her home for a good signal, and her neighbor heard her talking about her skin problems in detail.

This spring, the federal government cleared the way for more telemedicine by announcing sweeping policy changes, including temporarily waiving location restrictions so doctors can see patients living in other jurisdictions and expanding reimbursements to include audio-only appointments, according to DCist.
Some states loosened medical licensure restrictions and privacy laws so doctors could use FaceTime and Zoom to reach patients, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently allocated $15 million to support telehealth providers, the website said.

But technical problems remain a major issue, according to J. Desiree Pineda, an endocrinologist and the president of the Medical Society of D.C., who spoke with DCist. She said some older patients don’t have email addresses or have difficulty downloading and using Backline, the HIPAA-compliant desktop application she uses. Pineda said she often hears frustrated patients say, “I cannot hear you, doctor,’ or, “You’re sideways.”

Still, Pineda told DCist that she sees advantages in telemedicine, including the ability for multiple doctors in different locations to observe a patient at once through video appointments. One of her patients recently used a portable electrocardiogram to deliver test results using a smartphone app.
“It was incredible and really good quality,” Pineda told DCist. “A lot of things are going to come out of this.”

Ophthalmologist Saya Nagori told DCist that telemedicine allowed her to see patients just five days after giving birth. She said in the future, virtual triages could thin out waiting rooms so patients who truly need immediate care are seen first, and telehealth could help address the impending doctor shortage by allowing them to see more patients.

Some forms of health care simply can’t be provided remotely, however, including dentist visits, emergency care and prenatal care. In addition, some patients may not have reliable access to mobile devices or be able to afford cellular phone service consistently, DCist said.

Still, advocates for telemedicine say the pandemic is providing a look at what health care will look like after the pandemic. With tens of millions of Americans now out of work, telemedicine may make health care more affordable for uninsured patients, thereby expanding access, medical experts told DCist.

“The COVID-19 pandemic really put the whole idea of telemedicine on a shorter timeline,” Ashley Durkin-Rixey, spokeswoman for the Connected Health Initiative, a longtime advocate of telemedicine, told DCist. “But what happens when it ends? There should be a conversation more broadly about what types of visits can be remote. We’re hoping there is great data that comes out of this time so we can make that case to Congress and regulators.”

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