Officials: Telehealth is here to stay

Dr. Deborah McMahan, the health commissioner for Allen County, Indiana, admitted that she used to be skeptical of telehealth. Now, she sees it as the future. 

McMahan had her first telehealth appointment during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’ve actually had to use telemedicine during this myself,” she said. “It is unbelievably simple.”

Prior to the pandemic, only two of the three major health care systems in her county had telehealth services, McMahan said. Now, they all do, and “they are all thrilled with it in terms of how it has increased the accessibility of patients.”

Telehealth is the use of telecommunications technology to support long-distance clinical care. In short, it’s a virtual consultation with a doctor, and right now, it’s one of the only ways providers can interact with patients. 

Dr. Ryan Singerman, a physician at Parkview Health in Fort Wayne, Indiana, said he’s had great interactions with patients via telehealth consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being unable to physically touch his patients, he said it’s “amazing” how much information he can gather through a visual examination. 

Through telehealth appointments, he’s worked with patients dealing with depression, dementia, sinus infections, chronic health problems and more. 

Singerman said that many of his colleagues were skeptical of telemedicine in the past, but now that it’s the only thing they can do, many have embraced it.

It’s a phenomenon also felt in Lawrence, Kansas, according to Russ Johnson, CEO and President of LMH Health.

“With this new circumstance, we have had significantly more interest by clinicians because they want to take care of their patients and it’s the only way to do it,” he said, noting that the pandemic has actually “given us a quantum leap forward in that effort and it’s one we should not let go back.”

Johnson said his hospital has had a telehealth strategy in place for the past year and a half, but the pandemic has significantly improved their efforts. It was the same way for Robyn Coventon, CEO of the Heartland Community Health Center. Before the pandemic, telehealth was something on the horizon for the Lawrence nonprofit. Then, when COVID-19 hit, “boom, one week, we’re up and running,” Coventon said.

One of the biggest benefits of telehealth is its convenience, Singerman said. In the future, instead of taking a half-day off work to see the doctor, patients might instead be able to take a 15 to 30 minute break and visit with their doctor virtually. 

McMahan noted that telehealth will be especially useful in Allen County, which has rural, urban and suburban areas. Telehealth appointments will likely make it easier for those in rural populations who lack certain resources and those in urban areas without modes of transportation to receive consultations. 

She also said mental health providers have been pleased with telehealth visits, finding that there is less fear and intimidation for patients using telehealth services, whereas they might feel a certain stigma walking into a physical building for care. 

There are certain limitations, however. One is the inability to provide comfort or diagnose a patient through physical touch, Singerman said. 

“There’s so much power in being able to shake a hand — to be able to comfort someone who is hurting” he said.

In telehealth appointments, doctors must rely on patients for certain aspects of a physical exam. Singerman cannot press on his patient’s belly, but he can instruct his patient how to do so. Nevertheless, telehealth appointments force physicians to “run a bit blind” in certain areas.

Shannon Giles had two telehealth appointments last week. Overall, they were positive, the Alpena, Michigan, resident said, but she’s not completely sold on the process.

“I didn’t really feel like I got a proper diagnosis,” she said, noting that she missed the hands-on experience with her primary care doctor. 

Giles visited virtually with her doctor because she was having issues with shortness of breath. She said she was skeptical about the level of care she received, and if her doctor fully understood her issues. 

“It just didn’t seem like he could really know what’s wrong with me without my being there,” she said. 

Giles felt more comfortable with the level of care she received in her other telehealth appointment with her psychiatrist. That appointment felt normal, she noted, because they typically just talk. 

Giles said she believes telehealth is a positive service during this uncertain time. She was glad she didn’t have to be around other sick people or have to wait in a reception area before receiving care. In the future, however, she said that while she can see it being useful for patients to set up appointments with their doctors, if she is really feeling sick, she would prefer to see her doctor in person. 

Despite the current limitations of the practice, Singerman, the physician in Fort Wayne, says it’s here to stay, and that the advances in telemedicine will continue to improve. 

Linda Craig, a leader of the health department in Lawrence, Kan., expects there to be a push to maintain reimbursement for telehealth services after the pandemic. Most insurance companies have expanded their coverage to include the virtual consultations. 

“We’ve been waiting years for that and this pandemic opened up the doors for it,” said Craig, director of clinic services at Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. 

Johnson, the president and CEO of the Lawrence hospital, believes there will be a much bigger emphasis placed on telehealth after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. 

“It’s really become clear that telehealth is not only about the convenience of consumers and patients,” Johnson said. “It also adds an enormous flexibility and additional capability for a health system to adjust to demand changes or circumstantial changes.”

Telehealth could soon become so connected with traditional health care that the term becomes meaningless, he noted. 

“Pretty soon, we’re not even going to call telehealth ‘telehealth,’” he said. “It’s just going to be part of health.”

By Patricia Older

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