On Your Health

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Is Telemedicine the Future of Health Care?

Changes in the delivery of health care in the past few years — and more recently with the coronavirus pandemic — have led to a shift from traditional brick-and-mortar in-person visits to a huge rise in electronic and virtual communication health care options between doctor and patient.

These services, known as telemedicine, will continue to evolve in the future as health care providers adapt to their patients’ needs. What will this growth look like and how will it impact you? To answer these questions and provide more context, we talked with Dr. Dana Ugwu, an internal medicine physician with INTEGRIS Family Care Edmond Renaissance.

What is telemedicine?

You may see telemedicine and telehealth or virtual visit used interchangeably, but there’s a difference. Telehealth uses electronic communication and telecommunication technologies, such as telephone, video or messaging, to connect with patients for long-distance health care and education. Telemedicine, more specifically, refers to remote clinical services between a physician and a patient.

A good way to remember the difference is telemedicine is a subset of telehealth. Telehealth includes all non-clinical services performed remotely.

The type of telehealth services available will vary with each provider. INTEGRIS telehealth can assist you with video visits, telephone visits, virtual visits and e-visits. We go into more detail about each option in our blog post about how to prepare for a telehealth visit. You can also read more about how to determine when a virtual doctor’s visit is a good choice.

Explaining the growth of virtual health care

Long before the coronavirus forced changes in health care systems, the use of telemedicine had already expanded out of need. This helped treat patients in rural areas who didn’t have typical access to brick-and-mortar locations.

The benefits of telemedicine are easy to see. Physicians can now reach patients who are halfway across the city or state. All you need is a strong internet signal and a smartphone, tablet or computer to connect with a medical professional. You can wrap up a visit in 15 or 20 minutes, which is convenient for many patients. Often, you’ll spend the same amount of time driving to and from an in-person visit.

“The number one benefit is it allows a patient to schedule visits at their convenience, as they can have a televisit from home, work or school without the need to travel,” Dr. Ugwu says. “There is also a decrease in wait times, as physically moving the patient in the triage process can add more minutes onto an appointment. The minutes saved can be time the provider uses to get more medical history.”

Overall, Ugwu says her colleagues have noticed telemedicine is a preferred method for patients who are technologically savvy. So far, she’s seen the biggest impact on primary care and emergency room visits.

“Being able to have a televisit for concerns and mild ailments have likely decreased emergency and urgent care use by allowing the patient to speak to a provider they know and who is better able to make decisions,” she says.

The COVID-19 effect

Let’s state the obvious — getting care during COVID-19 has sped up the inevitable when it comes to telemedicine. As we mentioned, the industry was already heading in this direction, but the coronavirus outbreak drastically sped up the process.

“Like the implementation of computers into nearly every household and business, it has become difficult to keep up with good care coordination without the out-of-office patient communication,” Dr. Ugwu says. “Telemedicine allows better care and cost savings, both medical and legally. Telemedicine use has probably doubled or tripled since COVID-19.”

The need for telemedicine during the past several months has made virtual visits more likely to be reimbursed and accepted by insurance companies as well. Dr. Ugwu explains how in the past doctors spent countless hours calling patients and following up on their care plans. These hours were never reimbursed. But now, the amount of time and effort caring for patients outside of clinic appointments is being recognized by insurance companies due to the need for social distancing while still allowing a revenue stream and out-of-hospital care for patients.

Plus, for any patients who were unsure about telemedicine and its effectiveness, COVID-19 helped quell any issues. “There was more of a willingness to use it as the fear of exposure to COVID-19 increased and more of a willingness for insurance companies to reimburse and reimburse at acceptable rates,” she says.

“There is also the benefit of protection during this unknown time, as we learn more about COVID-19 and how it spreads and its impact in the community and in the world. This option allows patients and providers to feel safe.”

How telemedicine is changing health care

Regardless of what happens with COVID-19, this much is true about telemedicine: it’s here to stay.

“Telemedicine will be the permanent new normal. It has been obvious for years. Physicians treat many health conditions based on patient-reported symptoms, laboratory and/or imaging results,” Dr. Ugwu says. “Take, for example, symptoms of diabetes which may have no outward physical findings. History leads to the ordering of labs and those results dictate care, all of which don’t need frequent follow-up physical exams.”

This is one example of a disease that a doctor could manage with virtual visits after conducting an initial assessment.

Patients should also expect quicker, more effective services from their health care providers. You’ll no longer have to wait days or weeks to get an appointment to see your primary care doctor. In turn, this will help strengthen relationships between providers and patients.

“It helps give people peace of mind to know that if they need help, it will be available by someone who knows them,” she says.

Each health care provider will have a different feel in the post-COVID-19 era. At INTEGRIS, Dr. Ugwu mentions the creation of a new medical model that will benefit patients while ensuring the financial success of INTEGRIS in the long run so they can continue to serve the region.

Areas of growth

Even with the shift, there’s still a learning curve with medicine in a virtual setting. Once both physicians and patients can get past the technology component, various other barriers have existed such as security, privacy and insurance reimbursement.

For example, Dr. Ugwu says the main hurdles she’s noticed are getting older patients to use technology and feel comfortable with it. This will put a premium on workflow integration moving forward to ensure all patients are up to speed with telemedicine basics.

What does that look like? For Dr. Ugwu, she’ll continue speaking with other providers and administrative officials, attend town halls and engage in events that are appropriate in helping her work smarter and not harder.

“Ultimately, it comes down to lifelong learning and not being afraid of change,” she says.

From a practical standpoint, the main limitation is the lack of a physical exam. While physicians can deal with most mild symptoms via telemedicine, some patient complaints need a detailed exam that a virtual visit doesn’t allow. One workaround is to improve the triage process so telemedicine visits are appropriately scheduled versus office visits.

As telemedicine continues to evolve and becomes more of the norm, physicians must be cognizant of burnout with any potential increases in workload. In theory, telemedicine isn’t any different than in-office visits aside from the technological component. Still, learning to stay on top of things can benefit physicians in the long run.

“Because physicians can potentially see more telehealth visits in a day than with office visits, we’ll have to ensure not to over-schedule so we don’t overburden physicians and decrease the quality of services we provide,” Dr. Ugwu says.

If you’re interested in using a virtual visit for your next appointment, please visit our telehealth services page. Learn more about our primary care services or contact us here for more information. If you need an in-person visit, look up an INTEGRIS physician near you to set up an appointment.