Telemedicine apps have a critical new role during the coronavirus pandemic that could also prove crucial when bad weather or other challenges make traveling to a doctor difficult.
As health officials urge people to avoid non-essential in-person visits to the doctor, telemedicine use has experienced a massive surge. March telehealth visits exploded 50%, according to research from Frost & Sullivan consultants. Telemedicine providers like Teladoc say video requests jumped to more than 15,000 per day. Analysts at Forrester research say virtual health care visits are on pace to top 1 billion by the end of the year.
Arielle Trzcinski, a senior analyst at Forrester, told ComputerWorld that the coronavirus outbreak will “forever change the way consumers seek and receive health care… This moment will have a lasting effect on the adoption of virtual care and accelerate the shift from in-person care to virtual first engagement for multiple conditions and use cases.”
Telehealth has already played a crucial role during natural disasters like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico where restrictions on Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs were suspended during the emergency.
“This means that health care professionals and organizations have more flexibility to take action. The relaxation of rules also means that consultation with experts licensed to practice in places other than Puerto Rico is now allowed, and telehealth tools can facilitate many of these interactions where people are in need of care,” Jay Holder Bennett wrote in a 2017 blog post for Amwell, a telehealth provider. “Telehealth powered by trusted provider organizations, whether as part of a preparedness plan or deployed in aftermath response, can and should be used to help save lives.”
President Donald Trump has done the same during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 17, the Trump administration announced the expansion of telehealth benefits for Medicare beneficiaries saying in part:
“These changes allow seniors to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility so that they can limit risk of exposure and spread of this virus. Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries.”
Telehealth services can also benefit patients during the cold winter months when those who need to get to doctor’s appointments could find reaching their destinations especially difficult during heavy snowfall and icy road conditions.
“I have never used teledoc or teleconference to doctor ever,” Maggie Takach said.
But when she recently experienced what she suspected were symptoms of a reoccurring bacterial infection, Takach, a State College, Pennsylvania, resident, was reticent to go to the doctor. Heeding stay-at-home advisories, she decided to try online health services like Teladoc, MD Live and Doctor On Demand.
“I had to go through an app and then I waited two hours for someone to call me back and then they told me they couldn’t help me and to go to urgent care, which I did not do,” Takach, an AccuWeather employee, said in an interview. She added that she “made the decision in this time that going to an urgent care over something” that wasn’t “life-threatening, was not a good idea.”
Takach then arranged for an online session with her regular doctor. “She called in a prescription within 15 minutes, it was ready within 15 minutes. I started it immediately and what could have probably if it had gone unchecked taken me to the emergency room was completely avoided because of my regular doctor.”
Dr. Alfred Iloreta, Jr., an otolaryngologist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York says nearly every health care system is utilizing telehealth services now.
“I’m seeing patients do telehealth, and it’s very easy — especially an established allergy patient — for me to see them, have a 15-minute conversation about what’s going on, and that is the best way to figure out what is really going on,” Iloreta said.
Mental health practitioners are also adopting telemedicine. “Almost all therapists are doing teletherapy whether it’s on the phone or video conferencing or something like that,” Dr. Erik Fisher, licensed psychologist, told AccuWeather.
The Lowville Lewis County General Hospital in Syracuse, New York, is just one of many facilities that offer video conferencing options with a psychiatrist for patients struggling with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), eliminating possibly dangerous winter travel.
Takach said the benefits of an online appointment with her regular doctor saved her an unnecessary trip to urgent care. “I highly recommend regular doctors if they can. We did it like FaceTime, she knows my history, I’ve been with her for a while so it was very helpful … If it had been something unidentifiable, I’m not sure a teledoctor conference would work, but I also think that if you know, if you’re someone with a pre-existing condition or something that you know and your doctor knows, it would probably cut down on time, money and everybody working more efficiently.”
Iloreta, the Mount Sinai doctor, agrees. “Definitely reach out to your doctor,” he advised. “A lot of us are on the front lines. Me — I go out and am deployed, but also when I’m not out I’m at home doing telehealth visits over my laptop.”