When coronavirus restrictions forced health care systems to close their offices to non-emergency visits last spring, providers had to get creative with how they continued to serve patients.
Their solution: virtual appointments.
Known by many names like telehealth or telemedicine, these video appointments allowed care providers to assess symptoms and conduct follow-up visits without patients leaving their homes.
“We wanted to keep people safe by eliminating waiting rooms,” said Dr. Joel Lopez, division chief of urgent care and virtual health for Spectrum in West Michigan.
As we look to the post-pandemic future, medical experts believe telemedicine will be here to stay as another option to increase access to care, reduce costs, and free up doctors to spend more time with patients who need in-person care.
“When I think about the pandemic, one thing that didn’t change about our lifestyles is people are busy,” Lopez said. “I think we’ll still see growth in overall visits because of the fact that people want access to care and when you lower the cost, it should go up.”
In 2020, Spectrum Health alone facilitated about 200,000 virtual visits. The majority were specialty visits for things like chronic diseases, COPD, and diabetes check-ups, though about 26,000 were calls of the urgent care variety, for things like coughs, cold symptoms or rashes.
Lopez said it “wouldn’t be crazy” to see 50% of primary care appointments be done virtually in the future, and about 25% of specialist appointments.
“This is where we need to go as a health care system,” he said. “It frees up office time to spend with people who really need it. You can be more efficient and grow those connections.”
Dr. William Sims, an infectious disease specialist for Beaumont Health, agreed that virtual care would likely be the largest and most important change to come out of the pandemic.
Telemedicine won’t replace all forms of appointments like physical exams or cases that require skeletal and muscular care. But it’ll provide opportunities for routine appointments and follow-up visits, especially for patients with limited mobility and transportation challenges, he said.
“Before COVID, we didn’t do much with it. Now we’re doing it constantly — I think about half or maybe a little more. Certain people just like to come in better, and others who really just don’t want to come in and they’ll take telemedicine every time.”
According to a survey of 500 Americans across all 50 states conducted by a group called Satelliteinternet, about 60% of respondents said they used telehealth for the first time during the pandemic. Eighty percent rated the service equal or better than in-person care, and 76% said they plan to continue using the tool post-pandemic.
Not all results were positive. About 65% of respondents said they experienced connectivity issues during their video calls with providers, and about 33% said they were concerned about data caps while using telehealth.
To improve on virtual care, Dr. Lopez said he recommends his patients purchase a TytoCare device, which is a portable medical exam kit that can capture capture sounds from your heart and lungs, share readings of your heart rate and body temperature, and provide images of your inner ears, throat and skin.
The device costs about $299 through Spectrum Health or Best Buy. It’s not required for virtual visits, but it helps expand the types of care available for telemedicine.
Lopez said 86% of Spectrum’s care givers surveyed said they felt they could provide equal or better care with the TytoCare device than through an in-person appointment. He said about 100% of patients also provided positive feedback.
“We feel it enhances visits,” Lopez said. “When I think about before this, it was hard to do an ear visit (virtually) if someone had pain in their ear. It could be an ear infection that’s deep or swimmer’s ear … Having these tools helps me feel confident I’m treating it properly.”
Beyond the expansion of virtual visits, the pandemic magnified the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as individuals with underlying health conditions were more likely to have a severe cases of COVID-19 if infected by the coronavirus.
It also furthered the need for user-friendly mobile apps that allow for appointment sign-ups and the availability of personal medical records.
“We’re keeping that information with the patient so they can check off where they are in their health care journey,” Lopez said. “That was in motion before but the upgrade during the pandemic made it more user friendly.”
Dr. Sims said it’s too early to tell if the pandemic will result in greater focus on mental health or if vaccination levels will continue to rise. He also questions whether Americans will be willing to adopt the strategy of wearing masks in public annually during cold and flu season.
“One of the things we know if flu season was incredibly light this year and the main reason was masking and social distancing,” he said. “I’ve heard people suggest we encourage masking in the flu season, but I’m not sure how well it’ll be taken up here in the U.S. Even now with everything we know, there are so many people who don’t want to wear a mask.”
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