The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people interact with one another. Healthcare is no exception. From a provider perspective, I’ve seen doctors who didn’t previously offer telehealth services scrambling to implement the technology in some way. This trend has been especially true on the outpatient side, where doctors and patients may be consulting on more minor ailments or conditions, but I’m starting to see doctors connect with their patients with more serious conditions, who need inpatient care at some point.
The rush toward telehealth makes sense. It’s an easy way for providers and patients to connect with one another without risking their health. Patients definitely see the potential benefits of telemedicine, as usage has skyrocketed during this pandemic.
Although there had been some resistance to adopting telehealth services, the sudden and urgent need to find alternatives to visiting hospitals made that pivot critical.
While there will always be the need for face to face interactions in specific situations, the use of virtual visits and telemedicine technology is now being validated daily across all areas of healthcare — from inside hospitals to private practices.
When people think about accessing healthcare, often they think about going to the nearest hospital, which might be necessary in some situation, but not all. Some patients have minor conditions that can be addressed just as well via digital health solutions.
As the country and much of the world begin to reopen, many in the healthcare space wonder how people will view telemedicine as they re-enter the “normal” lives. Although many patients will come to rely on telehealth for regular care post-COVID-19, the real change is the industry’s newfound willingness to provide it.
Healthcare is based on a relationship of absolute trust between the patient and their doctor. But here’s the deal. With telehealth, patients won’t have to wait days or even weeks for a physician or specialist to visit a clinic, or undergo the time and expense it takes to travel through traffic to get to the doctor’s clinic. Speaking of travel, the doctor-patient relationship can also be enhanced when the patient doesn’t have the frustrating experience of waiting outside the clinic, sometimes for hours. Patients can “go” for consult with the doctor from wherever they have a WiFi connection without having to find parking.
The chief drawback to telehealth has always been the impersonal nature of our digital communications. While texting and video conferencing have allowed more immediate access to our friends, family and standard office meetings, in the case of healthcare, a telehealth visit will always lack the physical touch tied to the traditional clinic visit.
In time, patients will return to their doctors’ clinics and hospitals for routine checkups, deferred elective procedures, prescription refills and more. But they will do so with their health compromised — even if they never had COVID-19 — presenting with diabetes, heart disease and other conditions made worse by lost jobs and the struggle to afford food or rent.
Virtual visits may not remain the preferred method for all patient exams, but these interactions will undoubtedly remain a fixture in healthcare moving forward. After all, there are tremendous cost, resource and convenience benefits to leveraging telehealth.
This crisis has led to critical innovation. In the case of telehealth many providers and patients alike find it to be a convenient and effective alternative. It is an effective way to provide care at home, especially for people who can’t easily get to the doctor’s clinic. Patients can get care after office hours and can more easily communicate with their doctors. There is a potential for lower healthcare costs, as virtual visits can be less expensive than in-person visits.
People will be getting healthcare online long after COVID-19 crisis is over. Without warning, COVID-19 forced us to live differently and catapulted medicine into a new normal. While we hope our social lives revert back, healthcare should use this moment to leap forward. Until now, broad implementation of telehealth in this country has been hampered by institutional resistance to change.
It can be difficult though. Technology can be a barrier. Many patients don’t have fast enough internet to even do a telehealth visit. When you take care of patients from all walks of life and different age groups, not everyone has the technology.
Many will argue that telehealth is here to stay, and in many ways, has become the new normal for care delivery. The technology not only changes the way patients and providers interact, it also changes clinical workflows. With less in-person visits, the way clinical information is collected, accessed and exchanged must evolve to be more digital in nature.
There’s usually a lot of care coordination that happens between different silos. But now with everybody in their own different locations, it can be very hard for that care coordination to take place.
Traditionally, a group of doctors from multiple specialties managing a single patient are in a room together and they would review data around the patient and the imaging and they would come up with a treatment plan. All that can still be done, virtually.
Indeed, COVID-19 has forever changed how care is provided, and how care is accessed.
I spoke to a 73-year-old patient who is connecting with the hospital and his doctors through Zoom. Once he figured it out, he just loved it. He said, “I may never want to come into the clinic again.”