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Lickley: Remote Doctor Visits Become a New Virtual Reality for Patients

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Telemedicine is not a new health care delivery concept, but in 2020, it has taken on an increasingly important role. Efficiently connecting patients with the care they need, remote office visits have replaced many in-person physician encounters while reducing the spread of coronavirus.

Rachel Lickley

Rachel Lickley

In the current pandemic environment, many of our regular physician visits have been transformed from in-person to a phone call or video conversation from home. This has primarily been to protect patients and providers from further spread of COVID-19.

When the situation allows communities to reopen, telemedicine visits may remain part of the “new normal” for routine follow-ups and minor health issues. Remote visits show promise as an efficient way to leverage doctor time management without compromising care for a variety of conditions.

Over the past decade, telemedicine has often been viewed as a compromise, and many physicians were skeptical of how well it really worked. Now, the American Medical Association reports that physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners are seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth platforms than they did before the pandemic.

AMA also cites a study showing that 46% of patients now use telehealth to replace canceled in-person visits, compared to 11% of patients during 2019. More medical professionals are changing their opinions, with 57% of physicians viewing telehealth more favorably since the pandemic began, and almost two-thirds feeling more comfortable using it.

With the widespread opportunity — and necessity — to try it, a large proportion of participants are finding they like it. The University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine surveyed patients and clinicians about their telemedicine experience during the COVID-19 emergency. For patients, 67% rated their video/phone visits as good or better than an in-person visit with their doctor. More than 80% of the clinicians said they were somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with the medical care they were able to provide their patients within the virtual setting.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has expanded services that may be provided through telemedicine and has waived copayments during this public health emergency in some cases. Provisions of the CARES Act give health care professionals more flexibility in delivering care remotely.

Besides the patient-physician dialog during virtual office visits, technology provides the ability to remotely monitor a number of common health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. Many health apps also allow patients to share data directly with health providers, making for better collaboration.

Some types of remote physiological monitoring have come down in cost and improved in quality to allow physicians to closely follow patients with more complex conditions. Now some heart rhythm patents and oxygen saturation levels for those with COPD and asthma can be successfully watched on a daily basis.

The clinical efficiencies for providers, cost savings, patient convenience and safety for all afforded by telemedicine during the public health emergency could bake it into the health care delivery system going forward.

Challenges for patient privacy and data security, provider reimbursement and equitable access to underserved communities still remain to be solved. However, the evidence is mounting for telemedicine to grow from an annual $3 billion in revenues that’s been focused on urgent care, to a routine approach for primary care and ongoing treatment representing more than $250 billion annually.

Rachel Lickley is assistant vice president/regional service manager for Keenan’s public sector employee benefits practice. This entry is republished from Keenan's blog.

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