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Among the many changes ushered in by the pandemic, one of the most notable is the acceleration of telemedicine into the mainstream. Advances in technology have made it available for years, but before the advent of COVID-19, telemedicine was usually mentioned as a resource for patients in remote rural areas—and regardless of location, virtual visits were retarded by federal and state regulations, seemingly impenetrable insurance restrictions, and resistance to change on the part of many healthcare providers. With the need for social distancing, though, regulations have been relaxed, insurers are recognizing virtual visits, and practitioners are discovering that telemedicine has a valuable place regardless of the region you live in.
The benefits of telemedicine extend well beyond its ability to protect front-line providers and preserve scarce PPE supplies. Telehealth video interaction, it turns out, can be a boon for COVID-19 patients. Far from being an estranging experience, video meetings allow patients to see health providers’ faces without the dehumanizing barrier created by masks and PPE. Isolation has always posed a psychological risk to hospital patients, but being treated during a pandemic—with personal contact limited to healthcare workers clad in masks and goggles—can be an alienating, deeply stressful experience. Under current conditions, video visits allow cloistered patients their only opportunity to see a healthcare provider’s face. As one doctor told the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, “In some ways, the virtual visits bring the human — and empathy — back to the bedside. They can see me smile or laugh and they really appreciate it.”
Life under lockdown and the altered regulatory landscape are helping telemedicine enter the lives of patients with other ailments as well. As a result of changes implemented by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services, TechnologyNetworks notes, “healthcare providers… are now allowed to use any non-public facing remote device that is available to speak to patients. The relaxation of the OCR’s rule enforcement applies to telehealth services offered for any medical issue, even those unrelated to COVID-19.” A few long months ago, videoconferences were mainly the province of mental health practitioners, but since the advent of social distancing, virtual visits are making inroads in pediatric and maternal care, and have been adopted by a growing number of NPs.
Some of the NPs who have made the move to telemedicine have been pleasantly surprised. “I found, through experience, that my virtual visits were of much shorter duration and ran on time. Nearly every patient has been positive regarding the virtual visits and appreciate it as an option,” reported one St Louis NP in a Clinical Advisor survey. In the same survey, an NP in Three Rivers, Minnesota enthused, “In transitioning almost completely to virtual office visits we’ve really streamlined the way we provide healthcare…. we are providing the type of patient-centered, innovative, accessible medicine that we wish could always be our sole focus. Out of this horrific tragedy, we are making enormous strides in just a few days that would have taken years to change in any other reality.”
However, just as remote work is an option only for a privileged minority (only 20% of Americans are able to work from home), not everyone is able to visit their practitioner on Zoom or Skype. In a recent survey of healthcare providers, FierceHealthcare found that many patients—especially seniors—simply do not have the technological resources for telemedicine: “Two-thirds of clinicians (65%) report they have patients who can’t use virtual health as they have no computer or Internet.” Most of those surveyed added that they were “using video for less than 20% of their visits (43%) or not at all (14%). Instead, 44% of respondents are using the telephone for the majority of their visits.”
To take a long term view, though, telemedicine was already (finally) on the move even before the pandemic struck. In the time since, as in the case of remote working, the pandemic has normalized the concept of telehealth and accelerated its incorporation into the mainstream. While plenty of changes lie ahead, such as the reimposition of HIPAA privacy requirements as lockdowns end and social distancing recedes, the virtual visit is set to become a standard option in healthcare practice.