Going to the doctor no longer requires taking off work, driving to an appointment, waiting for your name to be called or even physically seeing a physician. In the era of COVID-19, a medical practice known as telehealth is taking over.
Despite telemedicine’s recent uptick in prevalence because of the novel coronavirus pandemic — when fewer patients want to go into a facility where they could catch the virus — many doctors aren’t hearing about telemedicine for the first time in 2020.
In fact, explaining medical abnormalities without physically seeing a patient first started in the 1870s, according to research conducted by Dr. Thomas Nesbitt in his book, “The Role of Telehealth.”
Rather than loading up the family in the horse-drawn buggy and traipsing all over the countryside to take an ailing Pa to the only doctor in the region, the first patent of the telephone in 1876 changed the landscape on accessible health care. By the end of the decade, almost 49,000 telephones were in use.
The widespread availability of the phone encapsulated the country so strongly that in 1879, an article in the Lancet touted using the telephone to reduce unnecessary doctor’s office visits. Four and a half decades later, a 1925 cover of Science and Invention magazine portrayed a doctor diagnosing a patient by radio.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute and Norfolk State Hospital used a closed-circuit television link for psychiatric consultations.
When the World Wide Web opened to the public in 1991, it didn’t take long for video conferencing tools such as Skype, founded in 2003, and Zoom, founded in 2011, to offer real-time access to the neighbor down the street or the medical specialist four states away.
When COVID-19 hit, enough medical and technological advances had been made to accept telehealth as part of the new normal for Americans in need of a non-life threatening doctor’s appointment.
Caren Aaron, an internal medicine specialist at Martinsville Internal Medicine, noted the key features of telehealth as it aids in today’s medical practice.
“Telehealth is the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies,” Aaron said. “It allows long-distance patient and clinician contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention and monitoring.
“Physicians have adapted to the telehealth platform in an effort to continue care to keep patients safe at home. Most physicians will schedule telehealth appointments as a follow-up to check in on reoccurring conditions, medications and an active care plan put in place for their patients. There has been a dramatic increase in telehealth visits during the pandemic.”
Dermatologists and psychologists traditionally see the largest number of patients through the telehealth platform, but there are also options for less specific needs, such as a general practitioner.
“All physician specialties have available telehealth appointments,” Aaron said. “The physician will determine eligibility for a telehealth appointment by obtaining information on the patient’s condition and evaluating the needs for the visit during an initial call from the patient to obtain an appointment.”
Another neat perk of telehealth is that instead of waiting months for an appointment – which is still the case in certain circumstances – select urgent situations no longer require a trip to the emergency room or urgent care clinic for diagnosis.
“Teleheath appointments can be scheduled in advance and are also available same-day,” Aaron said. “Patients will be given a scheduled appointment time by the office receptionist.”
In 2019, a J.D. Power pulse survey tracing telehealth user experiences reported that only one in 10 patients used the virtual appointment services. By the end of this year, analysts at Forrester Research said they expect telehealth interactions will exceed 1 billion, with 900 million of those concerning COVID-19.
“As the situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve, telehealth capabilities enable our clinical team to practice social distancing to further reduce the spread of illness while still meeting our patients’ health needs. Patients who are concerned they may be experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 are encouraged to consider telemedicine appointments to help further reduce the spread of respiratory illness,” Aaron said. “Leveraging telemedicine also conserves personal protective equipment and other clinical resources that are needed when treating a patient with suspected COVID-19 in the clinic or hospital setting.”
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