The global pandemic has been, to say the least, all-encompassing. Few are the aspects of daily life that resemble normalcy, and much of the status quo has been abandoned (we won’t be enjoying summer camps or the Olympics this summer). That which remains has been challenged to adapt to the web. Even experiences to which sensory perception and human contact are typically fundamental—wedding ceremonies, concerts, dinner parties, and even haircuts—have translated virtually.

A Scramble to Transition to Telemedicine

Sick patient with tablets having video consultation with doctor
Sick patient with tablets having video consultation with doctor

Perhaps the most inconceivable of these online transitions, though, hails from the realm of medicine. Doctor’s visits may seem the most fundamental among all interactions that until now, necessitated human contact. Around mid-March, though, many practices, offices and clinics across the country had only a matter of days to move their services to the web and join the ever-growing phenomenon of telehealth (or telemedicine).

Stacie, an east-coast pediatrician, observes that “this was a direction that medicine was already moving towards, but very slowly.” Most practices have invested little time and energy into telehealth experimentation, for the simple reason of uncertainty: “how many resources will we focus into developing it if we don’t yet know if we will get anything back?” But then the pandemic hit. “Now there’s been a much bigger push towards making it happen.”

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Most of us recall how surreal that one week in March felt—the one in which the pandemic morphed from just a looming threat for the more fortunate among us, to a concrete derailment of all of our daily lives. Until this week, one particular pediatrics office had hardly experimented at all with telehealth: the most the practice had done was participate in a pilot study with a regional children’s hospital, for which young patients came into the office to use an iPad to video call a psychiatrist in a different city.

Now, just a few weeks later, most of this practice’s visits are being conducted via Zoom technology (embedded within the secure medical records system, of course). In accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ proposed guidelines, most “sick visits” are done in-person, in the office, in a highly cautious manner. Most “well visits” are conducted virtually. While the latter may seem all well and good, Stacie is concerned about what is lost when even seemingly healthy patients are seen from a distance.

Well visits provide an occasion for routine check-ins that may not be done otherwise—monitoring a patient’s breathing, heart-rate, or blood-pressure, for example. It is often thanks to visits like these that underlying conditions are detected: “Now, we are missing out on things like that. But we are trying to see this as a temporary situation.”

Convenience of Telehealth

Pulmonologists pointing at lungs x-ray while having telehealth video call with patient
Pulmonologists pointing at lungs x-ray while having telehealth video call with patient

But the thing about technological advancements—like the switch from manual to automatic transmission, or, say, cash to Venmo—is that they almost always become the new norm. Once convenience has been proven and enjoyed, older, more expensive, time-consuming, and inconvenient standards fade out. So why would in-person visits resume normally as if telehealth never happened? And in fact, “there have been some positives,” that we would regret leaving in the past. Stacie has observed that younger patients, especially, have been loving to share their personal space with the doctors on the other side of the screen, making them more engaged and forthcoming. “And the teenagers, too, feel comfortable with these technologies, and seem more relaxed when in their own homes.” 

Telehealth has been more accessible logistally, too. “For the teenagers and young adults with busy lives and college-schedules, getting into the office can be challenging.” Perhaps telehealth can provide a way to work around this, long into the future.

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Avery is a soon-to-be medical student, and an employee at a popular telemedicine company that has been around since long before the pandemic. Its mission is to provide safe and easy access to diagnostic testing. In his opinion, telemedicine is important for just the reason that Stacie has observed: “Telehealth can help people overcome hurdles to healthcare access. For instance, people unable to make it to routine appointments can schedule online video sessions with their primary care physicians to talk about recent health developments. Kits for simple tests can be mailed to people, who can then provide samples (e. g. saliva) for testing.”

Avery has high hopes for greater accessibility in the future: “I think that the current crisis has shown how telehealth can be integrated into the current healthcare system. Primary care physicians are realizing how video calls can save patients tedious commutes and long wait times just to attend a 15-minute appointment.”

How Telehealth will Change the Healthcare Industry

Doctor practicing telehealth call with patient on cellphone
Doctor practicing telehealth call with patient on cellphone

This is an achievement worth holding onto when the pandemic (hopefully) recedes. But not so fast. As our nation’s response to this pandemic has allowed us to see with increasing clarity, the healthcare system is neither simple nor reliable to navigate. It remains to be seen whether or not insurance companies will continue to pay for virtual visits once this crisis has passed. Most companies have extremely strict criteria for everything, and routinely put up barriers to avoid having to pay for coverage. 

Outside the realm of solely individual appointments, though, Avery believes that the pandemic has demonstrated that the harnessing of technology is critical for communication between hospitals and care centers. In the future, our hopefully increased interconnectivity will correspond to better response effectiveness. We are learning, for example, that “a hospital that is close to reaching capacity can easily coordinate with another hospital with empty beds, to spread the patient load and potentially save lives.”

Like the future of most, that of telemedicine, and our healthcare system, is still unpredictable. But it is indisputable that, considering what we know about the immense importance of social distancing to counter the highly-contagious coronavirus, telemedicine is proving an essential tool in the battle against the pandemic.

What are your thoughts on how telehealth and telemedicine are changing the healthcare industry? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.