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Are Telehealth Services the Future of Medicine?

Are Telehealth Services the Future of Medicine?

COVID-19 has transformed the doctor’s appointment—but are telehealth services here for the long-haul?

The coronavirus continues to keep us on high alert. We are now making calculated decisions in everything we do—including recreational activities, seeing loved ones, and even going to the doctor. After gaining popularity during the enforced quarantine, telemedicine, or the ability to diagnose patients remotely via telecommunications, seems like it’s here to stay—especially as health risks urge us to stay home when possible. We asked experts and parents about their experiences with telehealth: what kinds of appointments it works best for and what it means for the future of “the doctor’s appointment” as we know it.

When should you use telehealth services?

While there is no one-size-fits-all method for determining when you should go to the actual doctor and when you should choose to use telemedicine, there are some medical issues that simply can’t be addressed over the phone or video. If you or your child needs a test like a throat culture, blood work, a urinary tract examination, or is due for a vaccination, an in-person visit is necessary, according to Lin-Lin Remenar, M.D. FAAP, pediatrician at Crystal Run Healthcare. Emergencies like chest pain, anaphylaxis, broken bones, or a wound that needs stitches are cause for an in-person visit to the doctor or even an emergency room.

Many doctors also prefer to see a patient if they’re prescribing medicine. “We’re really careful with antibiotic use, so if a kid has a sore throat and you’re not actually able to do a strep test [via telemedicine], you don’t necessarily want to just put him on antibiotics because kids can have a sore throat for more reasons than just strep,” Dr. Remenar says.

Dr. Remenar and Crystal Run also stress the importance of kids staying up-to-date on vaccinations—despite the fact that many parents’ instincts during the pandemic are to avoid health care facilities.

“If kids aren’t getting their vaccines, then I think we are going backwards because we’re trying to protect them from COVID, but then all of these diseases that we have had such good control over will go unprotected,” Dr. Remenar says.

Acute issues like cold and flu symptoms, rashes, seasonal allergies, and routine follow-ups for chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension can likely be treated over a video or phone appointment, according to Tania Elliot, M.D. FAAAAI, FACAAI, telemedicine and immunology expert and associated attending at NYU Langone Health. An examination of the back of the throat or the skin for rashes can even be done via a video visit. You can also invest in a stethoscope and otoscope that can connect to your smartphone, record heart and lung sounds, and visualize the inside of the ear to send information to your doctor. Keep in mind, if you feel like a deeper look may need to be taken or you’re uncomfortable with the telehealth-only approach, express that to your doctor and she will make the call if an in-person visit is needed. 

How Healthcare Facilities are Keeping You Safe

If you indeed need to see a doctor face to face, there are ways that doctor’s offices can keep you safe from COVID-19. In addition to limiting your own risks by wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, and using hand sanitizer, doctor’s offices are limiting the number of people allowed in an office at once by spreading out appointments, asking patients to wait in their car or outside rather than in waiting rooms, and increasing cleaning and disinfecting routines between patients. 

At Crystal Run, Dr. Remenar explains, there are two areas: the sick site and the well site. Each patient is asked about their symptoms the day before their appointment, before they arrive, and when walking into the office so they can be placed into the appropriate site. They also sanitize the entire office every night and each examining room is cleaned in between patients.

The Response to Telemedicine

Like any new technology, there has been a strong response from both parents and doctors based on their experiences. Telemedicine allows doctor’s appointments to be more accessible, convenient, and even cheaper—especially if you factor in missing work and paying for parking and gas. In some cases, a telehealth visit can even be a more comprehensive look at the patient than an in-person one may be.

“A teenager can go up into their own room and not worry about the parents standing outside of the waiting room. When they’re at home in their own room, it’s much more comfortable and they’re able to open up and talk to me a lot longer and more openly in their own environment.” Dr. Remenar says. “With a toddler in their own environment, it’s definitely much easier. I don’t have to get over them crying when I’m locking the door and I don’t have to sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’.”

There are of course unavoidable difficulties to overcome as well, such as poor connections, difficulty hearing or seeing a patient, and the lack of intimacy between doctor and patient. In February, GetApp, a business apps discovery platform, surveyed nearly 1,000 people and found that 84-percent of patients are more likely to select a medical provider who offers telemedicine over one who does not. More than half of patients said they prefer to seek care via telemedicine for cold-like symptoms. 

“My daughter and I were reluctant to use Telehealth for an eye issue. In the end, the ophthalmologist provided a different diagnosis than we expected along with a very useful treatment,” says Bonnie Parente, a Long Island mother of two. “We were pleasantly surprised and would use it again.”

While telemedicine will likely continue to be valuable throughout the pandemic and long after it passes, Dr. Remenar reminds us of its limitations. “It is true that in telehealth you don’t get real hugs, so I don’t think [telehealth] will ever replace the in-person visits from our patients.”

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Melissa Wickes

Author: Melissa Wickes is a graduate of Binghamton University and the NYU Summer Publishing Institute. She's written hundreds of articles to help New York parents make better decisions for their families. When she's not writing, you can find her eating pasta, playing guitar, or watching reality TV. See More

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