The last few weeks have seen a swarm of buzz words attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic such as coronavirus, social distancing and flattening the curve. It’s likely those words will continue to be heard as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s more than 3,000 cases in the U.S.
There’s another word most may not know about, but it could be a huge factor in slowing down the spread of COVID-19 – telemedicine.
What is telemedicine? It’s a treatment option that allows patients to talk with a doctor or physician over a video call. OurHealth Co-founder and President Jeff Wells, M.D., says telemedicine has seen growth in the last two years and targets acute convenience care for things such as sprains, colds or other minor inconveniences that can get a quick answer. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine is rapidly growing. OurHealth has seen itself grow with a January strategic combination with Marathon Health, which allows both companies to expand their footprint in the U.S.
“It’s a great example of our organization trying to respond in real time to a unique revolving situation,” Wells said. “From a public health situation, there’s an important need to limit social interaction so we’re taking a number of steps to help that, and one of those is converting physical interactions to a virtual one.”
There are many advantages to using telemedicine, especially during the current pandemic. Here are just a few ways:
A patient can do a screening with a computer, a tablet or a phone. It’s usually done through a web site or an app. This allows them to do it in the comfort of their own home and saves a trip. Telemedicine can be used 24/7, which is useful when you or your child is running a fever at 1 a.m.
“Using remote technology allows the patient and provider more interaction and dialogue with less friction,” Wells said. “There’s a lot of benefit there.”
Lessens the clutter
If you’re only experiencing very mild symptoms, a video screening would be a better option than visiting the emergency room or a clinic. Less people in the waiting rooms means more time can be spent tending to patients with more serious COVID-19 symptoms. These screenings are already being practiced in other health services including the Illinois State Dental Society which has recommended only treating patients requiring emergency procedures.
Lessens the spread
Telemedicine flows right into less people in the waiting room which leads to decreased likelihood of spreading COVID-19. This keeps high-risk patients from being exposed, and a fewer number of people in general from catching the virus.
On the flip side, it can also allow doctors to continue to provide services even if they have been exposed.
“We expect through this pandemic situation that there may be times our providers may have been exposed and therefore have to be quarantined,” Wells said. “They don’t want to expose any other patients.”
Depending on the insurance carrier or provider, costs for virtual screenings are often free or minimal. The cost, or lack thereof, can entice patients to use this option knowing it’s not going to hurt their wallet.
Fees and access to telehealth services for all Americans are part of the Families First Act currently under review by the U.S. Senate. On Tuesday, March 17, Medicare said it will immediately expand coverage for telemedicine nationwide to help seniors with health problems stay home to avoid the coronavirus.
With telemedicine it’s worth noting a screening won’t diagnose COVID-19, but it’s an exceptional tool to use in determining if testing and quarantine should be the next steps. Even with its effectiveness, Wells says a majority of patients still aren’t using it prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’ve seen kind of an explosion of vendors that offer telemedicine or telehealth routinely through health plans,” he said. “But the reality is there’s very low utilization. About 1 out of 3 people are using these tools even though they’ve had a very good experience with it.”
Telemedicine will continue to grow throughout this pandemic and beyond. Teladoc Health, a virtual medical provider, reported it provided approximately 100,000 virtual screens to patients in the last week. The increase is sure to challenge IT infrastructure and networks across the world.
“(COVID-19) is going to challenge the providers and the system to test the limit of virtual services,” Wells said. “We will learn a lot and this will accelerate the adoption of virtual health care delivery models, and we’ll do it faster than we originally would have.”