In any trying situation one can focus on the negative or look for the positive. Such is the case with the COVID-19 pandemic. Those of us in the healthcare sector would do well to look for silver linings in the midst of what is arguably an incredibly stressful situation. One such silver lining is found in doctors who are finally warming up to telemedicine.
STAT contributor Rujuta Saksena, M.D. wrote of her own experience with telemedicine in an April 19 piece. Though she was unwilling to embrace telemedicine as a complete, drop-in replacement for face-to-face visits, Dr. Saksena has come to realize that clinicians do not have to keep doing things the way they have always been done.
Changing the Medical Culture
Saksena made it clear that medical culture has largely kept telemedicine at bay. She explained that doctors have relied on face-to-face visits for so long that they cannot imagine any other way. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many viewed telemedicine as too cold and impersonal. But doctors are now changing their tunes, according to Vista Staffing.
A video screen is obviously not a complete substitute for in-person interactions. But it turns out that telemedicine sessions can be equally personal and engaging. How so? Video conferencing is, by its very nature, incredibly informal.
Saksena wrote of conferencing with patients still in their pajamas. She even had a little fun with the idea of doctors getting into the spirit of things by wearing their own pajamas during conferences. She wrote of finally getting to see the cats and dogs her patients talk about. She wrote about seeing patients interact with their children in the more natural setting of the home.
Informal telemedicine is actually changing the medical culture at this very moment. It is a safe bet that private practice owners, employed doctors, and locum tenens alike will look at their offices in a quite different way once they return to them.
More Efficient Medicine
Clinicians are also discovering that telemedicine makes for more efficient medicine. Again, technology cannot totally replace face-to-face visits, physical examinations, and lab tests. But it can make the typical private or group practice more efficient.
Nearly every GP waiting room is filled with patients who do not really need to be there. Their concerns are standard fare that can be addressed with telemedicine. Using technology to see these types of patients would empty out waiting rooms and give physicians more in-office time to devote to those patients who truly need face-to-face visits.
Telemedicine cuts down the number of in-office lab tests as well. It prevents infections from being spread between patients and staff members. Telemedicine can reduce office hours, thereby saving money on everything from utilities to labor.
Addressing the Doctor Shortage
Telemedicine’s most profound influence has been the realization that it can effectively address the ongoing doctor shortage. We do not yet have hard numbers to work with, but let’s assume a doctor can see two patients via telemedicine for every one patient seen in the office. Telemedicine instantly doubles capacity. That greatly reduces the number of doctors needed to treat the same number of patients.
Areas in desperate need of clinicians – like rural areas, for example – could rely more on telemedicine and locum tenens to meet the needs of patients. Telemedicine could give patients access to local options rather than forcing them to drive long distances to access urban medicine.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been anything but a good time. However, it does have its silver linings – one of them being the fact that doctors are finally warming up to telemedicine.