Hitting a Nerve

Which of the changes that coronavirus has forced upon us will remain?


Eventually this strange Twilight Zone world of coronavirus will end and life will return to normal.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

But obviously it won’t be the same, and like everyone else I wonder what will be different.

Telemedicine is one obvious change in my world, though I don’t know how much yet (granted, no one else does, either). I’m seeing a handful of people that way, limited to established patients, where we’re discussing chronic issues or reviewing recent test results.

If I have to see a new patient or an established one with an urgent issue, I’m still willing to meet them at my office (wearing masks and washing hands frequently). In neurology, a lot still depends on a decent exam. It’s pretty hard to check reflexes, sensory modalities, and muscle tone over the phone. If you think a malpractice attorney is going to give you a pass because you missed something by not examining a patient because of coronavirus ... think again.

I’m not sure how the whole telemedicine thing will play out after the dust settles, at least not at my little practice. I’m currently seeing patients by FaceTime and Skype, neither of which is considered HIPAA compliant. The requirement has been waived during the crisis to make sure people can still see doctors, but I don’t see it lasting beyond that. Privacy will always be a central concern in medicine.

When they declare the pandemic over and say I can’t use FaceTime or Skype anymore, that will likely end my use of such. While there are HIPAA-compliant telemedicine services out there, in a small practice I don’t have the time or money to invest in them.

I also wonder how outcomes will change. I suspect the research-minded will be analyzing 2019 vs. 2020 data for years to come, trying to see if a sudden increase in telemedicine led to better or worse clinical outcomes. I’ll be curious to see what they find and how it breaks down by disease and specialty.

How will work change? Right now my staff of three (including me) are all working separately from home, handling phone calls as if it were another office day. In today’s era that’s easy to set up, and we’re used to the drill from when I’m out of town.

Maybe in the future, on lighter days, I’ll do this more often, and have my staff work from home (on typically busy days I’ll still need them to check patients in and out, fax things, file charts, and do all the other things they do to keep the practice running). The marked decrease in air pollution is certainly noticeable and good for all. When the year is over I’d like to see how non-coronavirus respiratory issues changed between 2019 and 2020.

Other businesses will be looking at that, too, with an increase in telecommuting. Why pay for a large office space when a lot can be done over the Internet? It saves rent, gas, and driving time. How it will affect us, as a socially-dependent species, I have no idea.

It’s the same with grocery delivery. While most of us will likely continue to shop at stores, many will stay with the ease of delivery services after this. It may cost more, but it certainly saves time.

There will be social changes, although how long they’ll last is anyone’s guess. Grocery baggers, stockers, and delivery staff, often seen as lower-level occupations, are now considered part of critical infrastructure in keeping people supplied with food and other necessities, as well as preventing fights from breaking out in the toilet paper and hand-sanitizer aisles.

I’d like to think that, in a country divided, the need to work together will help bring people of different opinions together again, but from the way things look I don’t see that happening, which is sad because viruses don’t discriminate, so we shouldn’t either in fighting them.

Like with other challenges that we face, big and little, I can only hope that we’ll learn something from this and have a better world after it’s over. Only time will tell.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz. He has no relevant disclosures.

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