By: Mark R. Zygaj

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, things were different. We packed ourselves into stadiums to watch the Buffalo Bills score touchdowns, lined up at concert venues to see our favorite bands, and visited our doctors when we needed to discuss a concern or complete an annual well visit. Today, the summer concert tours have been canceled and football may be played without fans for a short time. So, too, has this impact been felt by physicians and patients in this time of social distancing.

Prior to the pandemic, use of telehealth or telemedicine was minimal. Now, it is improving and enhancing how physicians offer optimal patient care. As the medical community navigates through this new normal, telemedicine is proving to be a highly effective way to achieve social distancing and, so far, it appears to be working.

What is telemedicine? The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) defines it as the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to deliver care to a patient at a distant site. While telehealth simply involves the use of a smartphone, smart device, or computer, it was never highly utilized by physicians for a number of reasons, including lack of reimbursement by government agencies and private insurers, costly start-up investment, confusing regulations, and concern for patient buy-in.

The adoption of telemedicine shifted into hyper-drive over the past couple of months. According to analysts, March telehealth visits surged 50 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic. Health insurers and hospitals have made a strong push for patients who have milder symptoms to use telehealth during the crisis to help alleviate the strain on emergency rooms and doctors’ offices. The federal and state governments removed a large barrier to its use when they agreed to pay the same rates for virtual visits as in-office appointments, and private insurance companies followed their lead.
Physicians and patients alike have rapidly adapted to telemedicine, and it is transforming the physician/patient relationship and care in positive ways — but is it here to stay? The answer is likely yes, but to what degree remains to be seen. Telemedicine offers several long-term benefits including the ability to eliminate transportation barriers associated with in-patient visits, the option for a presence for certain specialty providers in hospitals when they might not otherwise be available, improved patient convenience and privacy, and reduced wait times and no shows.

For most practices, telemedicine reimbursement rates and the acceptance and comfort of patients will be significant factors in determining the degree to which telemedicine continues. Certainly questions do remain around process, consistency, and quality that must be addressed as telemedicine becomes an integral part of the medical landscape. However, now that the use of telemedicine has been released, no one expects the “genie to be put back into the bottle.” The question becomes – how do we balance healthcare delivery to offer a variety of care pathways that benefits both patients and providers, keeping them safe, healthy, and when needed, socially distant?