Historically, telemedicine has been widely used in rural areas that lack access to care or require extensive travel for healthcare visits. However, the use of telehealth in hospitals has grown more than 40 percent between 2010 and 2017 and continues to rise, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Center for Connected Health Policy, nearly every state in the U.S. has taken action in recent weeks to remove policy barriers to telehealth utilization in light of the global outbreak. Removing this barrier allows me and my colleagues from Kaiser Permanente of Georgia the opportunity to safely see patients, as well as expand our capacity during this unprecedented time. In fact, almost 90 percent of Kaiser Permanente medical appointments right now are either over the phone, via video or e-visits. This shift to telehealth has changed the way both providers and patients are viewing medical appointments and should continue to be used in the coming weeks and months.
Benefits of Telehealth Visits
While some patients are not used to the concept of virtual visits, the visual nature of these appointments allows patients and their providers to bond in ways that are not possible over the phone. In addition, they allow all disciplines to better triage patients and determine if the risk of not seeing them face-to-face is greater than the risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 in a medical office.
The Georgia Medical Board has recently altered rules which now allow physicians to also see new patients via telehealth options, so anyone in need of care does not need to worry about needing an existing relationship with a specific physician. In addition, these patients are triaged and evaluated in the same way as existing patients.
Video visits can be implemented across several specialties, including mental health and even obstetrics and gynecology, which are critical in this current climate. Video visits are particularly appropriate for specialties like dermatology, in which sending photographs augments the evaluation. Consider the ways it can be used for everyday appointments with your primary care provider, which can include prescription refills, seasonal allergy needs, general wellness visits or a health concern unrelated to COVID-19.
At minimum, virtual appointments allow interaction with a patient and help determine the need for a possible face-to-face visit or transfer to a different specialist.
When Telehealth is Not Applicable
However, it’s important to note video visits cannot solve all health issues and are not to be used for emergency situations where you are experiencing shortness of breath or acute chest pain, among other potentially life-threatening symptoms or side effects to diseases. If you are experiencing these symptoms, please call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.
I encourage all patients with access to the internet and a device with microphone or camera capabilities to consider the use of telemedicine appointments. Together, we can combat this pandemic while maintaining the health of ourselves and others.
Dr. John Strickler is a dermatologist affiliated with Kaiser Permanente and one of its telehealth experts.