When COVID-19 hit in 2020, it shut everything down, quarantining people to their homes with little access to the outside world. Ulterior methods were sought to guard our health, such as working from home, virtual meetups with friends, and shipping groceries.
However, many doctors’ visits were put on hold. Surgeries that weren't urgent were postponed, and many doctors' offices were closed like everywhere else.
Quickly, the health industry adapted to incorporating telehealth and virtual checkups to meet the need.
However, about two years into the pandemic, many businesses have reopened with a new normal expectation in place. Many still work from home while others employ a hybrid method.
Some have found the convenience of having groceries delivered preferable to shopping themselves, and others have relied on virtual communication with friends to stay in touch across long distances rather than going out as often as they did before 2020 while we still combat the pandemic.
The health industry is the same. Operating on both sides of the counter, it is a marriage of both safety and convenience.
But is one method more dependable with better results than simple convenience, or is telehealth simply an alternate operation to meet personal preference that will last long after the worst of the pandemic?
A Call of Convenience
Not so long ago, a visit to the doctor for a checkup, an appointment, a health concern, or a follow-up was common. You'd drive to the office, check in, wait in the waiting room, talk to a nurse about health updates, wait some more, and then, finally, the doctor would arrive for your visit.
It's plain to see on the surface why some of these visits would cause frustration with so much waiting around, especially when an office is busy.
According to Healthcare IT News and physician Doctor Archie Adams, prior to the pandemic, "telehealth didn't quite catch on as much as many hoped" due to reimbursement and regulatory challenges as well technology access.
When the pandemic demanded a change to face-to-face interaction in every business, including healthcare, Adams says he went into it assuming people would still prefer the in-person interaction.
However, after surveying his patients, Adams says 60% of in-person patients preferred the change to virtual appointments, and 86% of virtual patients wanted to remain virtual.
There are case-by-case scenarios that demand in-person care, but for many like essential workers, the flexibility and time saved with virtual visits offered convenience.
According to Global Med, telehealth can "save money, provide clinical evidence, bring care to the underserved and even drive revenue." It makes sense that it not only filled a need during the pandemic, but it took advantage of improving technology to make improvements to the health industry.
Side Effects Include...
As convenient as the virtual take on healthcare can be, it’s not an all-around, perfect solution. There can be pros and cons to both in-person and virtual visits, so most of it lies in preference.
Attitudes have changed regarding telemedicine, but many of the same fears and preconceptions remain.
However, a Global Med article in July 2019 points out that traditional, in-person visits can also lack the personal touch that some patients fear in virtual appointments.
A Journal of General Internal Medicine study says “64% of primary care providers and 80% of specialists didn’t bother to ask the patient why they came in,” and this was in response to the quality of traditional visits.
In comparison, another study from the Massachusetts General Hospital found that 62% of patients said quality between telehealth and in-person visits were the same, and 21% said it was even better.
The virtual take on healthcare is also something new to many practices, especially smaller businesses. So while many are still working on implementation, it’s important to keep communication channels open between professionals and patients.
The best way an office can improve its procedures is by listening and adjusting to patients’ needs as well as providing ways for patients to give feedback. Using that feedback to constantly find better ways to adapt to a virtual environment is the best way to bring growth to individual health practices.
While there are some technological gaps that must be met on both sides, again it comes down to overcoming preconceptions and personal preference. No one way is the right way to meet with your doctor or anyone in the healthcare industry, and not all visits can be solved virtually.
The most important thing is that patients are making appointments and reaching out when they need to, overcoming the paralysis of choice and using the options the health industry makes available.
In his Healthcare IT News article on telehealth, Adams broke down how practices can approach introducing telehealth to their workflow. He recommends a “robust and easy-to-use telehealth software" as well as one that is HIPAA-compliant.
Targeting your audience is also a crucial factor in telehealth. Younger generations are more likely to have the tools required to make the most of virtual visits. They also tend to be more comfortable adopting new technologies.
Having a flexible mindset is ideal in a patient looking for virtual care. It’s important that they are willing to switch from virtual to in-person when situations arise.
Telehealth visits are also beneficial to those who live far away or have limited transportation. It can be a big convenience for them to cut back on the number of times they have to drive in for an appointment, depending on what the appointment entails.
Adams suggests to “avoid telehealth visits during the acute infection and trauma phase” and to “consider grouping the telehealth visits separate from the in-person visits for better workflow.”
Incorporating any new practice in a business is never easy, but granting patients access to your services in different ways is a challenge that will pay off.
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Like many changes driven by the pandemic, telehealth and virtual health options aren’t going anywhere. They’re part of our new normal and the conveniences these options offer to both providers and patients mean not offering them would limit a practice’s accessibility.
Virtual appointments have subverted anxieties because of COVID-19. They encourage people to still reach out to doctors and other healthcare professionals instead of putting off care, increasing future risks, as pointed out by the University of Utah Health.
Knowing we can depend on maintaining access to various healthcare fields in times of crisis, and that the technology is only improving that accessibility, telehealth is becoming more reliable and convenient.
Whether or not a person uses it largely comes down to personal preferences as well as case-by-case scenarios. Not every health concern can be solved over a phone or video call.
But for the most part, telehealth introduces a more convenient way for everyone to access healthcare as well as encourages them to reach out over concerns instead of putting off scheduling a visit.
Ultimately, the best way to use this versatile system is to examine each situation and understand what works best for the patient while healthcare facilities continue to expand and adapt best practices to embrace this new interaction in the industry.