Amid the turmoil of the coronavirus, a bright sign of progress has emerged: The growth of telehealth.
Millions of Americans and their employers have learned that they can continue to do their jobs from home, while staying in their sweatpants and reallocating their commute time to family time. But as a physician, I am particularly excited that Americans have discovered the power of telehealth.
Earlier this year, policymakers opened-up regulations to allow more Americans to access health care through a video or phone call with their doctors. Patients and providers experienced the convenience and quality of care that remote doctors’ visits provide, and it’s going to be tough to put the restrictions back in place when the pandemic is over— and we shouldn’t.
Telehealth is an undeniable benefit to patient care: The CDC points to contactless medical appointments as effective in reducing exposure to the virus for doctors and patients alike, and helpful to preserving PPE. Virtual visits also save time and money by alleviating the hassle of taking time off from work, and according to the CDC, “[T]elehealth can also improve patient health outcomes.”
For those in rural areas without medical services close by, telemedicine may be the only way patients can connect with a medical professional. It is the difference between having access to care, or not. That fact alone underscores the advancement telehealth represents to improving access to quality health care in the United States.
Virtual visits are also an effective and practical way to treat chronic conditions. For example, a patient with diabetes can monitor blood sugars and, with a simple telehealth appointment check-in, quickly review the results with their doctor who can make immediate medication adjustments.
But as the future of health care starts to take shape, it is important keep patient care the top priority rather than convenience.
As a physician, I caution policymakers, tech champions, and the public against taking technology too far and making health care transactional. Health and wellness are personal, whether we are considering symptoms, degree of pain, knowledge base or level of anxiety. We cannot lose sight of the individual person and craft health care into the model of streamlined efficiency, like ordering a burrito bowl at Chipotle — where minor preferences are expressed but ultimately everyone gets a slightly altered version of the same thing and is out the door as soon as possible.
Progress can quickly turn into regression if the human person becomes a blind spot in the drive for technology-facilitated convenience and efficiency.
A true advancement in health care combines in-person interaction between patients and their doctors with virtual visits. Enthrallment with doing everything remotely has swept the nation — Facebook and many other companies have announced new policies to allow employees to indefinitely work remotely. This is overwhelmingly viewed as the advancement in how we do work. But convenience and increased technological assistance doesn’t necessary equal progress or improvement.
The best medical care relies on a comprehensive approach that includes a face-to-face connection, physical examination and enough time to observe and listen to signs and non-verbals that can only be appreciated in-person. Noticing that Mrs. Davis is taking a bit longer to get into the exam room or has a new tremor that was not noted at her last visit six months ago contributes greatly to the quality of medical care that cannot be entirely replaced with telehealth.
The prospects for accelerating telehealth options are promising post-coronavirus. President Trump has announced an executive order allowing Medicare to reimburse telehealth visits indefinitely. Medicare reimbursement guidelines set the tone for what general health insurance companies will cover, so the move will most likely spill over to the general population. And, Medi-Share, a health care sharing ministry for which I serve as Medical Director, recently voted to include telehealth visits among the bills that members share. We also offer free telehealth visits for non-emergency care through a telehealth partner.
As our nation emerges from the pandemic and employs lessons learned, optimal health care must be our goal, with or without the use of new technologies. It is imperative that cost and convenience do not overshadow the needs of individual patients. If we allow physicians to lead the way in designing health care delivery for a post-coronavirus America, we can ensure the best of both worlds: an affordable and efficient system that respects and serves each sacred human life.
Dr. Alesia Greene is Medical Director, Medi-Share