Telemedicine has potential to permanently change health care

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COVID-19 changed our world almost overnight: our bustling schools and thriving businesses closed, our busy streets emptied and, for many of us, our laptops, tablets and cell phones became our primary method of connecting with coworkers and loved ones.

Evidence from some areas of the country indicates that if we remain focused on flattening the viral curve, we will be able to return to our everyday routines safely. We will be returning to a new “normal,” and telemedicine, which has played an important role in facilitating social distancing, has the potential to permanently change the way we access health care.

For some time, health care insurers and providers have been promoting telehealth as a safe, cost-effective way to deal with routine health issues and to triage more significant health concerns. Now that we have spent several weeks staying home and staying safe, providers and patients who had been slow to adopt telehealth have increasingly turned to virtual health care visits, with positive results.

As a medical doctor, I can assure you that a telehealth visit is an effective and satisfying way to interact with a health care practitioner. Primary care physicians use telehealth to address common ailments, like allergies, asthma, bronchitis, infections, and colds or the flu, and to manage heart conditions, blood pressure and diabetes. And, importantly, patients enjoy their telehealth experiences. A 2019 survey from Massachusetts General Hospital found that 77% of patients found telehealth more convenient to schedule, 83% of patients reported that their care was as good as, or better than, an in-person visit, and 66% of patients felt a personal connection to their telemedicine practitioner. This feedback suggests that telehealth is an excellent everyday solution for treating common maladies and for monitoring chronic conditions without the risk and inconvenience of continual office visits.

Telehealth has emerged as a key tool in our arsenal for adapting to life in a pandemic. It is critically important for doctors and patients alike that we avoid personal contact unless absolutely necessary — and telehealth allows us to continue providing routine medical care without the risk of transmission.

Of course, telemedicine is just the first line of defense, and it does not completely replace the need for in-person evaluation or care. Patients experiencing flu-like symptoms can start their path to treatment with a telehealth visit while limiting their personal contact with others. Many patients will find their telehealth visit effective, but patients remain the best judge of when and how to seek treatment, particularly with a rapidly evolving disease. Individuals consistently experiencing the key symptoms of coronavirus — shortness of breath, fever and a persistent cough — should seek direct medical attention.

When this pandemic is over and we return to our full schedules, telemedicine will transform from a useful tool for supporting social distancing into a common way of accessing medical assistance. We know that patients prioritize access to their physicians, and quick access is preferred, whether online or in person. A 2017 survey by American Well, HAP’s telehealth partner, found that the average telehealth visit took between 13 and 15 minutes — an amazing time saver, compared with the average office visit that takes nearly two hours.

Telemedicine is a tool, not the answer to all the challenges presented by this pandemic. But coronavirus has forced us to adapt and adopt new ways of behaving faster than we might have done before. If we learn to bring medical care to our patients more quickly and efficiently than we have in the past, I believe we can mitigate the impact of future public health crises. Until then, be well, stay safe, and know that quality health care is just a video call away.

Michael Genord, M.D., is president and CEO of Health Alliance Plan (HAP) and president and CEO of HAP Empowered Health Plan Inc., which provides integrated care and coverage for Medicaid and dual eligible Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries.

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