Telehealth offers a solution during the pandemic
In March 2020, as healthcare organizations around the U.S. prepared for the arrival of a highly contagious novel coronavirus predicted to overwhelm their facilities, many found a beacon in telemedicine. The technology hadn’t broadly caught on yet, but it would prove to offer lifesaving solutions during a time of unprecedented challenges.
Prior to the pandemic, many medical facilities had been using telemedicine in small pockets for specific patient populations such as people living in rural areas or those with chronic conditions. Insurance companies would only reimburse for a limited number of services. Some people were concerned about privacy breaches, and others presumed it couldn’t be as effective as a face-to-face visit.
Changes lead to innovation
The Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services (CMS) responded to the crisis by widely expanding reimbursement for telemedicine. CMS also temporarily waived Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations against healthcare providers who serve patients in good faith through everyday communications technologies.
These two changes blew the door wide open for telemedicine. According to a late-April survey of 591 U.S. consumers by Black Book Market Research and Sage Growth Partners, more than one-third of people did not feel safe going to the doctor’s office or a hospital, and the fear of COVID-19 made people more likely to use telehealth. More than half of survey respondents said they had access to telehealth.
Safely addressing important healthcare needs
As the coronavirus took center stage in many areas of the country, people still needed care for the health issues they’ve always faced. For those patients concerned about going into high-risk areas like hospitals, telemedicine enables them to safely get remote care, such as checkups, consultations, post-surgical follow-ups, physical therapy, mental health services and more.
James Bruffey, M.D., is the Medical Director for spine care at Scripps Health in California and a HealthTrust Physician Advisor. Before the pandemic, the orthopedics department at Scripps was in the process of piloting telemedicine within Epic. In March, as virus exposures increased in the area, caseload was low. “Patients were concerned about being exposed, but they still needed access to care,” says Dr. Bruffey. “We had to quickly come up with a way to provide that care safely, so we rolled it out.”
Patients are relieved to be able to connect with a physician during this time, notes Dr. Bruffey. “If it’s a normal two-month post-op visit, patients love it because they don’t have to drive in, they get to see me and it’s very efficient.”
At Franciscan Alliance, a Midwestern health system, telemedicine was only used before the coronavirus for the accountable care organization. During the pandemic, telemedicine was expanded to orthopedics and other departments. HealthTrust Physician Advisor William Payne, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon with Franciscan Alliance says, “Patients generally like being able to see their doctor, and providers gain information because human emotions and facial expressions are available.”
Virtual screening & treatment
When it comes to treating COVID-19, telemedicine enables healthcare professionals to conduct a video screening with people in their homes who think they may have contracted the virus. The healthcare provider asks patients questions and has them take their temperature. If symptoms are present, the provider will authorize a test.
In many cases, people who are sick at home with COVID-19 can be safely monitored and treated virtually. Patients can exchange daily texts with providers and submit temperature readings. Telemedicine helps slow the spread of the COVID-19 infection to healthcare workers and other people coming into emergency departments or physician offices.
With all of the benefits of telemedicine, there is also a learning curve for patients and staff. The technology is generally reliable, but limited internet bandwidth at home can make the connection spotty. Patients may need help from loved ones when using the phone or computer during a visit—for example, to help show an injury in a hard-to-reach area, so the physician can get a good look. Or a patient may need to obtain a medical device, such as a blood pressure cuff or pulse oximeter, and be taught how to use it at home.
“People over the age of 75 sometimes have concerns about technology, so we try to engage a daughter or son to help walk them through the process,” adds Dr. Payne.
A new world
“The ability to deliver care to people at home is the transformation that medicine is seeking,” says Dr. Payne. “Once patients get a taste, they will accept it as part of everyday life.”
Dr. Bruffey agrees that his team will continue to use telemedicine even after the pandemic. “I look forward to its evolution,” he adds.
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