The threat of COVID-19 has made ordinary, routine tasks potentially fatal. Waiting rooms of medical offices have now become potential infection hotspots however for millions of Americans with ongoing health issues, going to the doctor is a necessity.

Telehealth is a great solution by providing a way for people to see their doctors without the risks associated with in person visits.

What is Telehealth?

Telehealth is a broad term to describe medical services that don’t require a patient to physically visit a doctor’s office to receive care. Phone calls, online portals, and digital medical records are some examples of telehealth many people already utilize without realizing it. Current popular telehealth services to speak with medical professionals or discussing treatment options are through video conferencing or text messaging.

Doctors estimate 50-80% of patient interactions can be done virtually depending on the field of medicine. It may seem like only specialties that primarily rely on visual examinations like dermatology are suitable for telehealth but many fields including rheumatology can benefit from telehealth.

Dr. William Harvey, chief medical informatics officer at Tufts Medical Center, says a telehealth appointment can be broken down into four processes: reviewing your health history, talking about your current illness, a physical examination, and rendering a medical opinion or form of treatment, very similar to a normal doctor visit. As a rheumatologist, Dr. Harvey can, in most cases, observe a patient’s joint movements and diagnose or check the status of preexisting conditions via telehealth services.

We can create a more streamlined, socially-distanced process in the waiting rooms by utilizing telehealth servicesfor patients who can be seen virtually and reserving in-person patient visits for when it becomes necessary. Situations such as medical consultations that simply involve follow-ups or prescription refills do not require an in-person visit. Procedures that cannot be accomplished by telehealth consultations, such as samples and blood tests, can be handled with a traditional appointment or a home visit.

Rise of Telehealth

Prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, technology had aided the rise of the telehealth industry however the pandemic has pushed telehealth into the limelight as a safer alternative than physical visits to medical offices. In 2019 alone, more than $10 billion was invested in telehealth companies. Since the start of 2020, more than $200 million has been invested despite the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

Why is Telehealth Important?

COVID-19 has changed the nature of demand fueling telehealth services. The medical field is struggling to serve people who need their services. Many hospitals strongly recommend patients who suspect they have COVID-19 to try telehealth services first before they come to a hospital in an attempt to slow the spread. Hospitals are also trying to limit the number of cases that are admitted into the ER to save capacity for truly serious cases.

The pandemic has shown how inefficient our pre-pandemic process had been in the past. Post-pandemic, telehealth services will be seen as a necessity moving forward. Both federal and state governments are temporarily modifying laws and regulations to allow telehealth services to be more effective during the pandemic. Even insurance companies, including Medicaid, whom historically have not covered telehealth consultations have begun to incorporate them into policies.

Many experts are calling this period a “stress test” of telehealth services and if they can successfully supplement the current healthcare industry there is no reason to believe changes to accommodate telehealth services won’t become permanent.

How You Can Benefit from Telehealth Services

According to a study from Kent State University, the top three reasons why people avoided regular doctor visits are cost, transportation issues, and a busy lifestyle.

“80% of Americans admit they are delaying or forgoing preventive care.”

From Zocdoc

Transportation is an issue for many who do not have reliable transportation option, especially elderly patients and patients with complicated or debilitating medical conditions. Telehealth is a simple and convenient option, especially for people who require a specialist that is not available in the patient’s local area.

Lack of time due to a busy lifestyle is an increasingly common reason for people to not seek medical help. It is no secret that a visit to a doctor can take up an entire day. Many people who do not have immediate health problems do not view regular medical visits to be an effective use of time. Telehealth is a great option to seek routine medical attention without spending large amounts of time in a waiting room.

The Future of Telehealth

There is a clear trend that shows telehealth will become a necessary tool to keep people safe and to streamline what is often regarded as a bloated industry. Undoubtedly, we will see changes to prevent future outbreaks of highly infectious diseases and telehealth will be at the center of patient-focused reform. The coming years of health safety and conscientiousness will accelerate the adoption and normalization of telehealth.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash