Telemedicine — the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to deliver care to a patient at a distant site.
This disease has opened up a powder keg of questions related to our healthcare system: How do we better protect our healthcare workers? How do we increase our resources and capacity to test for and manage widespread illnesses? How do we remove barriers to testing and care (such as lack of insurance)? And what do we do when doctors aren’t allowed to see patients any more due to restrictions?
In response to the COVID-19 surge, which can make in-person doctor visits a risk to the patient, other people seeking care, and the health care provider, President Trump recently announced that Medicare would temporarily cover telemedicine for Medicare beneficiaries.
This announcement means that Medicare patients can visit a physician by phone or video conference (including FaceTime, Skype, etc.) for no additional cost above an in-office visit. The move keeps potentially infected people from exposing other patients or medical staff and frees up healthcare resources (emergency room beds, etc.)
The visits are not limited to COVID-19 cases; patients are also covered for virtual visits for routine care, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings. This is a departure from Medicare’s previous policy that only covered telemedicine in limited situations, such as for those living in rural areas.
Though this is new to Medicare, many private health insurers have been providing telemedicine benefits for years. They routinely cover virtual healthcare services through companies like Teladoc—one of the largest virtual healthcare providers—and PlushCare.
The surge in popularity of these companies in recent weeks shows a clear pivot toward greater acceptance of virtual medical care. The day that it was announced the Medicare would cover virtual healthcare, Teladoc saw their stocks increase by 10%. PlushCare has reported a 40% surge in income in the past few weeks as COVID-19 has become more prevalent.
What Health Issues Can be Addressed Through Telemedicine?
- Ongoing conditions. People with enduring health issues such as depression, diabetes, and high blood pressure can check-in with their doctor virtually, just as they would through in-person visits. This allows the doctor to monitor their symptoms, order lab work or tests if necessary (which they can then evaluate virtually), and prescribe appropriate medications.
- Routine concerns. This could include everyday health issues such as rashes, allergies, birth control pills or sprained or strained muscles.
- Urgent care issues. Patients can avoid a visit to the E.R. or urgent care center (and the attendant long waits and exposure to contagious patients) by visiting an online doctor for pressing medical issues. These could include cold, flu, conjunctivitis, urinary tract infections, or sinus infections.
How Will Telemedicine Work for Allergies?
We are advising our AllergyEasy physicians to consider telemedicine options for allergy care. Just because COVID-19 is dominating the health scene doesn’t mean that allergies aren’t poised to make a grand entrance of their own. Trees have started pollinating in many parts of the country and others will follow suit, followed by grasses in late spring/early summer.
In addition, with people cooped up inside, household allergens such as dust and pets can have a bigger influence than usual, causing the immune system to overreact and trigger irritating allergy symptoms.
Initial and routine follow-up visits for allergies can be handled over the phone or internet. And even though allergy testing with our allergy test kits is valuable for helping people know exactly what they’re allergic to, it’s not essential. If patients’ symptoms make it clear that they have allergies, doctors can still initiate treatment, even if their offices aren’t open for allergy testing due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Are There any Drawbacks to Telemedicine?
The benefits are many, and we’ve touched on quite a few of them: it can limit exposure, keeping patients from spreading or contracting contagious diseases. It can save people time, eliminate hassle, and offer greater flexibility (a lot of telemedicine companies offer 24/7 service. And since telemedicine requires fewer resources, it saves money. Doctors don’t need exam rooms, exam tables, or certain medical supplies, and they often need fewer staff members to assist them.
That said, however, doctors and patients should be aware of some limitations:
- Internet issues. Connectivity issues on the part of the provider or patient could impact care.
- Doesn’t work for everything. There are still many medical procedures that cannot be handled virtually.
- May not provide the same inter-personal connection. Some people feel like they can achieve a stronger rapport with their doctor through in-person interactions.
There are always silver linings to difficult times, and one positive development of the current situation is that it allows America to test its infrastructure for offering virtual healthcare. We’ll be far better prepared as a nation if we can provide adequate medical care, even if hospital space is limited and in-person visits aren’t possible.