Telemedicine, a service where patients receive remote medical care, has seen a recent spike due to the onset of COVID. Until now, U.S. consumers preferred in-person doctor visits, and telemedicine remained unpopular. Now, though, experts believe that advancements in mobile technology, coupled with both consumers and physicians rapidly adopting the service during the pandemic, could finally help launch telemedicine into the mainstream.
As the internet became ubiquitous, its consumer benefits seemed almost overwhelming, with nearly all successful companies utilizing the web expand their reach. The possibilities for healthcare, in particular, as one of the largest world industries, seem limitless. However, for most people, internet healthcare takes the form of vast medical information, which can be quickly accessed and shared.
Unfortunately, up to this point, telemedicine’s use seemed confined to online check-ins and electronic medical records. However, under the surface, consumers seemed at least interested in more. Web M.D, the infamous internet self-diagnosis service (and the bane of all healthcare workers), is one of the most popular healthcare information sites on the internet.
However, the pandemic has forced consumers and providers into a dilemma: do physicians risk patients infecting others with an in-person visit, or should they remain self-quarantined, sacrificing medical assistance? What if the patient ends up not having COVD-19? Should we put them at risk from sick patients that do?
Telemedicine attempts to eliminate the dilemma while also providing faster, more convenient service. Patients and providers can access services on computers and smartphones for videoconferencing, email, and even text messaging. Similarly, apps are available that can offer additional services with easy to use platforms. Services include prescriptions, medical consultations, diagnosis and treatment minor infections or mental health, and certain types of therapy.
From the healthcare side, telemedicine has several key benefits. In an interview with Wired, Caesar Djavaherian, a former ER doctor and cofounder of telehealth company Carbon Health was asked why he wanted to make healthcare more efficient through telehealth.
“I became a little bit disenchanted with all of the administrative burdens that physicians have to deal with in their everyday lives. And I wasn’t satisfied with the answers to my questions about why we do things this way. I was told, ‘Well, we always do it this way,’ or ‘This is the way we’ve traditionally approached X type of health care.’ And I thought, you know, in 2013, 2014, 2015, with incredible technology developing in every other industry, why couldn’t we take a step back on how health care was being delivered?”
Djavaherian added that many ER patients showed up with issues that could have been taken care of at home or the next day through a primary physician, which added to the wait times for patients who really needed to be treated through the ER.
One solution could be an improved understanding of the capabilities of telemedicine. “[W]hat we need more of is to have a broader list of actual ailments that we can take care of virtually,” Djavaherian said.
Greater access and more flexibility for patients and healthcare providers can reduce in-person doctor visits and wait times at healthcare facilities. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention, found that telemedicine, using mobile phone messaging, helped acute coronary syndrome survivors better manage their health goals, reducing future risk.
Ultimately for healthcare consumers, cost remains a significant issue. Pre-coronavirus, Medicare, and Medicaid insurance policies covered telemedicine visits differently than in-person. Fortunately, their policies have changed, including more types of telehealth visits.
According to the American Medical Association (AMA), expanded Medicare coverage for telehealth services and updated payment policies have helped physicians offer more services to patients during the pandemic. Policies have also been loosened to help patients get prescriptions, including controlled substance prescriptions, via telehealth.
Post-coronavirus, questions remain as to the viability of telehealth. AMA says that it will continue to lobby for policies to expand telemedicine.
“There are going to be changes in the practice of medicine going forward based on all this use of telehealth. We are quite certain of that,” said Sandy Marks, the AMA’s senior assistant director for federal affairs. “We are definitely going to be pushing for some of these new policy flexibilities to remain in place.”