With thousands of new patients’ communications with physicians through smartphones and their personal computers, local health providers are beefing up their resources to deal with the rush.
A mask and an iPad. That is what a patient is taken over when they arrive the signs consistent with the novel coronavirus.
The patient can then use their smartphones from an isolation room to video chat with a remotely-located nurse practitioner who can diagnose their symptoms and decide next steps — all without face-to-face contact. The procedure is called tele-triage, and it is only one of the ways in which telehealth is revolutionizing patient treatment in the era of coronavirus.
From the symptom-checking text bots to more conventional video chat consultations, telemedicine is having a moment — and it is a moment when market experts say it is a long time coming.
“This epidemic has the overburdened patient and provider-side interest and potential in telehealth,” said an Omaha-based orthopaedic surgeon. “I assume this is accelerating a trend which was going to happen irrespective of it. And to live on the back end this will be here.”
Medical professionals across the board believe that broad-scale telemedicine will help fix many of the challenges the American health care system is experiencing as it tries to remain alive in the midst of the COVID-19 crush.
“What telehealth can do is allow both the physicians as well as the patients have access to treatment without potentially being exposed to the virus,” said CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). “It reduces risk. So in that regard, it is incredibly valuable.”
Doctors have already started using telemedicine to connect remotely with patients through video chat. Patients who do so are less likely to develop or spread the disease than if they were to actually visit the doctor’s office. A dermatologist, shortly after the coronavirus outbreak, started advising patients on this route. One of her patients told her about an eye rash, claiming he had come into contact with the virus.
“One person was quarantined and I was able to see him on telemedicine, and then I was able to give his medication to a delivering pharmacy,” DeHoratius said. “And I just felt like I had a small effect in minimizing coronavirus transmission because he didn’t have to go out of the house to see me.”
Remote care also maintains personal protective equipment which is already in extremely short supply at several hospitals around the country.
The American Medical Association (AMA) reports that while the use of virtual visits by doctors has doubled over the past three years, in 2019 just 29% of doctors reported using telemedicine. A new study by Amwell, a private telehealth company, shows that just 9% of patients have a telehealth appointment with a doctor.
One of the biggest barriers to this is simple: knowledge. Under the J.D. Power report, only 18% of Americans are even aware that telemedicine coverage is provided by their health system or insurance company. Older people those most at risk for coronavirus contracting showed little interest in virtual visiting. Just 5% had one.
Insurer coverage is another roadblock. Until the outbreak of coronavirus, most of the major insurers reserved telemedicine coverage for aged, remote patients with restricted access to local health care facilities. Yet as the need for remote access to physicians has risen in recent weeks, most insurers have changed their postures to varying degrees.
“Before this happened, the reason telemedicine did not develop any further is not because patients don’t love it — they love it, the experience in our data is phenomenal,” Hollander said. “It did not get bigger because no one paid for it.”