While a telemedicine physical exam may be anything but "physical," patients are consulting doctors remotely at an increasing rate these days for ailments and issues that can be addressed online and over the phone.
Patients who use telemedicine meet with their doctor online through a video platform or on the telephone instead of physically going into the office. While many doctors have offered telemedicine services to their patients for years, the technology has taken off in 2020.
The Rise of Remote
Telemedicine got a major boost this year after the U.S. government relaxed its restrictions on the use of telemedicine in Medicare, allowing all Medicare recipients to be seen via telehealth during the pandemic. Many private insurers then followed suit in changing rules, waiving fees such as appointment co-pays to encourage patients to use telemedicine services when possible and keep them at home.
In 2019, just 11% of consumers used telehealth, compared with today's 46%, according to a McKinsey report. At the Cleveland Clinic, providers who once averaged 5,000 telemedicine visits a month saw 200,000 visits in April alone.
Surface Benefits of a Telemedicine Physical Exam
In times of social distancing, many people have found telemedicine to be a more efficient and convenient option for managing their health concerns. Telemedicine appointments can do the following for patients:
- Eliminate inconvenient commutes to the doctor's office
- Make wait times more bearable
- Open up opportunities to consult specialists previously unavailable due to distance
As doctors aim to limit exposing their patients or themselves to sickness in cold and flu season, they've found that they can successfully handle certain appointments online, particularly ones that don't require any physical contact or visual examination. These include appointments to:
- Review lab results
- Adjust medication doses
- Receive mental health services
Long-term Implications of Telemedicine
Patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease have also taken advantage of telemedicine to regularly check in with their doctor and monitor their condition. Remote monitoring devices such as at-home EKGs or blood pressure sensors can send results over the internet automatically, making it possible for doctors to keep tabs on their patients' health from afar.
Many doctors see telemedicine continuing to play a major role in the U.S. health care system, especially for people with chronic conditions. For example, a diabetes patient might collect their blood sugar data at home and have it monitored remotely, visit a local lab for blood draws, connect as needed over telehealth to review the data, and then see their doctor in person only twice a year.
Telemedicine is also likely to stick around, to a certain extent, because patients who have their preferred doctor available to them rely less on expensive urgent care centers and emergency rooms, both saving money and improving patient outcomes.
Supplement or Replacement?
Despite the benefits, it's unclear exactly how much of a role telemedicine will play in the health care system going forward. Experts do see some restrictions returning, and they stress that remote care will not entirely replace in-person care.
For instance, private insurers may not continue to waive co-pays into the future. Some physicians may want clarity on exactly how they'll be reimbursed for telehealth before committing to making telemedicine a permanent part of their practice. Next, certain conditions or illnesses — namely those that require physical examinations — simply need to be addressed in person. Finally, a portion of the population does not have the technology they need to see their doctor online on a regular basis, or they may not have reliable internet connections.
Even so, organizations should keep their members aware of telemedicine as one of several options available to them and encourage them to use it to the extent that they are comfortable and able to do so. Even if telemedicine becomes more restrictive than it currently is, many members will still find it an attractive, convenient option as medical and communications technology continues to improve.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.