Healthcare during COVID-19

Article

18, May 2020. 20:19pm

Is telehealth and telemedicine here to stay?

Weeks before COVID-19 decimated our world, I switched from a traditional primary healthcare practitioner to a Direct Primary Care model. The big difference is that Direct Primary Care doctors provide unhurried care with a focus on the ongoing maintenance of your health.

Perhaps the bigger draw for switching was my traditional practitioners’ reluctance to embrace digital convenience. I had to schedule bookings by telephone, had to drive to the office for test results, and waiting times were always longer than expected.

Fast forward two months. With my new doctor, I schedule appointments online through a calendar, results are emailed to me, and there is no waiting time because the appointments are virtual.  Not to mention reduced travel time and the fact that I don’t have to sit in a waiting room with sick patients coughing and sneezing.  

Pre-coronavirus, few people experienced telehealth or telemedicine technology

It was an innovative technology many people feared. Like online shopping a couple of decades ago, some said you couldn’t get good care virtually.

Things have changed now that face-to-face interaction has been mostly extinguished, with healthcare providers limiting or stopping nonessential appointments and elective surgeries. For many providers, closing their physical doors became the catalyst for adopting technologies that have opened the digital doors to the telehealth world.

Empowering patients to receive remote care through a variety of technologies, including video chat, remote monitoring tools, and mobile health apps, telehealth and telemedicine tools offer convenience. They give patients the opportunity to maintain a relationship with their healthcare provider from the comfort of their home or any other location. It’s also beneficial for the provider, as he or she can access the patient’s real-time health data.

It all tracks with investment news reporting telehealth company funding doubled from the fourth quarter 2019 to the first quarter of 2020, which is now at an all-time high.

The technology has been on the rise for more than several years but wasn’t seen as a mainstream form of providing healthcare

As healthcare officials urged the public to prolong nonemergent in-person medical needs to free up hospital beds for potential COVID-19 patients, individuals are now regularly seeking medical consultations as well as therapy sessions from the safety of their homes.

At Kaiser Permanente, over 90% of mental health visits are now happening virtually. An executive said, “We had been pushing telehealth options for a long time, but the rapid uptake over the past few weeks is something that would have taken years, under normal circumstances.”

In an effort to ensure that all individuals have access to telehealth, the federal government issued a waiver in early March that expanded Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to pay for telemedicine visits during the public health emergency. 

According to a nationwide survey conducted by the NORC at the University of Chicago, more than one in five older adults (21 percent) said they’ve had a telehealth appointment since the start of the pandemic. Of those, the survey found that almost half (49 percent) said the experience was about the same as an in-person visit, and only a few (four percent) said it was “much worse”.

The Association of American Medical Colleges reported that few hospital systems in the U.S. have the technological capability to scale up to making 50 percent of their care virtual. However, many are making rapid and dramatic changes to their telehealth programs.

Virtual care is here to stay beyond the public health crisis

It will likely be taking the role of the first consultation before visiting an office or an emergency room, as well as potentially being the preferred method for doctor visits.

While remote treatment has benefits ensuring the safety of the patient, doctor, and medical staff, there does tend to be a disconnect. How can a medical provider build a relationship with the patient?

During face-to-face visits, doctors were able to physically sit down and listen to their patient and demonstrate empathy for the patient’s situation. The act of a doctor placing the stethoscope on a patient’s chest is comforting because the doctor actively engages the patient by touch.

Conversely, video appointments can be difficult if the internet connection isn’t cooperating on one side or the other. Instead of a physician physically touching the patient he or she is relying on the patient’s description of their symptoms.  

How empathy can be used to improve digital interactions.

As the healthcare industry shifts to telehealth services, physicians and doctors should be asking themselves what they can do to keep empathy in the equation. As important as it is to provide vital health care, it’s also important to ensure the patient is heard and the provider/patient relationship is strong.

Plotting a patient journey map and enhancing touchpoints in the pre-appointment, appointment, and post-appointment experience will forge deeper connections with patients and help to improve interoperability between disparate systems. 

*Editor’s Note: The article, Healthcare during COVID-19, is one installment in a series of articles focused on the emergence of telehealth during the public health emergency.