Telehealth: A Lifeline to Care During COVID-19

The coronavirus has created an alarming sub-epidemic. People are afraid to go to their doctor. The Washington Post reports appendicitis, and even heart attack and stroke victims, are not getting the medical attention they need out of fear of possible COVID-19 exposure in medical facilities. Parents are delaying well-child checkups and routine vaccinations, paving the way for a possible resurgence of measles, whooping cough, and other diseases, according to the New York Times. Despite personal protection equipment and sanitization protocols, the general public are reluctant to visit medical facilities for routine checkups, medical concerns, or life-threatening emergencies. 

Telemedicine is emerging as a viable alternative to in-person medical visits. The Center for Disease Control and other professional medical societies are lauding telemedicine as a way to provide medical care while reducing infectious exposures and strain on healthcare systems.  While it’s not a replacement for emergency services, it can address low-risk urgent care and provide patients with access to medical care they may otherwise not receive. With an Internet connection, video conferencing software, or even just a telephone, patients can share symptoms with their medical care provider, participate in therapy, receive prescriptions, monitor chronic medical conditions, and much more.

In fact, telehealth has demonstrated enough benefits that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has implemented several policy changes to actively encourage its use by expanding telehealth services, making it more affordable, and allowing medical providers to use popular video apps, such as Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype, to provide medical care, even if the app used is not fully HIPAA-compliant.

While the immediate concern of the global pandemic has made telemedicine more accepted, there are benefits to telehealth that will extend beyond the current crisis:

  • Geographic accessibility. Telemedicine makes healthcare more accessible geographically. Patients facing barriers to travel, such as lack of transportation, scheduling, or physical disabilities, have an easy, convenient way to get the medical they need. And the many rural communities unable to hire and keep doctors no longer need to drive up to three hours for a checkup.  
  • Financial health. Many private insurance plans are starting to cover telemedicine appointments. Medicaid and Medicare are also stepping up to the plate. But in addition to medical cost savings, patients will save an average of $43 just in lost time, according to the Boston Globe. Add to that the cost of gas, parking, or public transportation. Medical providers also stand to save by reducing overhead and expanding their patient base.
  • Happier, more productive staff. With the convenience of telemedicine, office staff will have less cancellations and no-shows to manage. They’ll have less crowded waiting rooms to oversee. In fact, telemedicine allows some providers to work from home, both improving work/life balance and allowing practices to extend hours or offer more flexible scheduling without increasing staffing or overhead costs.

While telemedicine is becoming more prevalent, there are, of course, limitations. Not everyone has access to the technology needed to take advantage of telehealth appointments, particularly the underserved socioeconomic demographic most in need of affordable healthcare services. And those who do have access to resources may not have the technical know-how or feel comfortable discussing their medical conditions over electronic channels. However, as medical regulatory agencies pave the way to making telemedicine easier and more accessible, and as medical practices put the new policies to use, telehealth will prove itself to be beneficial enough to patients and practitioners to be put into use long term.

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