Telemedicine is defined as any doctor–patient encounter that occurs via electronic means. The technology supporting telemedicine has been around for years; then it became essential in early 2020, and telemedicine became a household activity.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, typical healthcare systems provided 50 virtual visits per day. Beginning in March 2020, that number spiked to over 3000 per day. Outpatient offices that had previously billed fewer than 1% of their visits as virtual encounters suddenly started performing over 90% of the visits electronically.
Telemedicine During the COVID-19 Pandemic
When it became clear that stemming the spread of the disease would involve social distancing and quarantines, isolating infected people and their close contacts, electronic visits became mandatory. Electronic communication appeared to be the ideal first point of contact. What was not expected was that many more important uses for telemedicine emerged as well.
In the early days of the pandemic, many emergency rooms became crowded with people worried they might be infected. This crowding turned out to be an ideal way to spread the virus. The solution was telemedicine, which permitted patients to do a video consult with a physician who could determine the level of care required.
By April 2020, it became clear that the frail elderly and patients with chronic diseases were at the highest risk from COVID-19. Many of these patients canceled office visits for fear of contracting the virus. Telemedicine allowed these patients to maintain contact with their doctors.
Within hospitals, telemedicine allowed physicians to check on their patients remotely, avoiding the risk of spreading the virus among patients. Telemedicine also helped preserve scarce personal protective equipment. Virtual visits also allowed family members to participate in office visits even when they were not allowed to enter the hospital. Families could ask questions of the physicians and receive timely updates on their loved ones.
Telemedicine is the Future
Experts believe that telemedicine will be a permanent solution for everyone’s initial primary care going forward. Patients have personally experienced how much healthcare can be accomplished remotely; it is difficult to imagine people not preferring that to driving and waiting in outpatient offices. The future of telemedicine also depends on whether Medicare and other insurance companies will continue to reimburse virtual visits appropriately. Even surgical practices now understand that many visits can occur virtually, especially pre and postoperative visits.