In 2015, I proposed virtual care for the division of adolescent medicine, to the administration of our Midwestern children and adolescent hospital; they gladly listened and accepted a copy of the resources I provided. Virtual care was acknowledged to be the future direction of our and other organizations.
Four years later, virtual visits were introduced in the pediatric urgent care, but with little usability as families were slow to adopt this new form of medicine. Fast forward to the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020, and virtual medicine was the only option to meet the needs of patients and to stop the economic consequences. Unfortunately, the expedited rollout at our and many other hospitals may have resulted in limited program development and a lack of shared best practices.
Since March 2020, both patients and medical providers have accepted virtual care, but we now have an opportunity to review some of the limitations to offering virtual care. Work in primary care centers may see limitations using virtual medicine to meet the needs of all patients. Take into consideration the ability to offer confidential care. Confidential care has been a challenge virtually. For example, while completing a virtual visit with a 19-year-old female, it was apparent she was not alone and when asked a benign question the commotion in the background told the real story. The young woman began to laugh and said, “That was my dad running out of the room.” Despite requesting that parents leave the call, they can be heard within earshot of the caller.
On a televisit, written words appear backwards on the video, requiring written questions to be mirror images. When asking questions meant to be confidential, we have used note cards with a question mark. Verbal directions asking the adolescent to give a thumbs up or down to answer the question are required to maintain privacy from others in the room. If the patient responds thumbs up, this leads to additional questions with note cards. Although not ideal, this process gets to the answers, and the adolescent can disclose confidential information without concern about being overheard. Child abuse and neglect professionals have found similar challenges talking to caregivers or children as they are uncertain if others in the home are out of the screen but listening to the questions or prompting responses.
Obtaining vitals may be restricted and picking up hypertension or changes in weight has been limited to face to face visits. To continue to provide virtual care will require screening stations. I foresee a kiosk at the grocery or drugstore with a computer and the ability to obtain vitals or portions of an exam such as heart and lung evaluations. Patients could go at their convenience and the results could be sent to their providers. Technology already exists to use a cell phone to take photos of a toddler’s sore ear drum, and to obtain basic pulse oximetry and ECG, but these have a cost and may be available only to those able to afford these tools.
Billing issues have developed when patients go to a lab on the same day as a virtual visit. Completing a virtual visit for a sore throat thought to be streptococcal pharyngitis should not be finalized without access to a streptococcal throat swab. Until families have home kits to evaluate for strep throat, the families must bring the patient to a clinic or lab to obtain a pharyngeal culture. Furthermore, insurance reimbursement standards will need to be set for ongoing virtual health to become a sustainable option.
Workflows have been disrupted by balancing face to face visits with virtual visits. Unless the virtual visit has been set up for the medical team to access immediately, there are delays accessing the virtual platform, resulting in unnecessary gaps in care. Arranging schedules to separate face to face visits from virtual visits offers more efficiency. Creating a block of virtual visits separated from face-to-face visits or assigning providers to virtual-only schedules may be the best option for an efficient clinic flow. Telemedicine visit templates may need to be created as virtual visits become standard practice.
At present, virtual visits can only be offered to English-speaking patients. The inability to offer translators limits access to a small number of patients. Given COVID-19’s impact on the underserved communities, having a safe resource to reach these patients has been limited, leaving face-to-face visits as their only option. Requiring a face-to-face visit during peak illness has placed patients at risk. They have refused health care as opposed to exposure to the illness in health care settings.
We have innovative opportunities to create a new health care system. Despite the initial struggles with the adoption of virtual care, patients and providers have begun embracing the technology. Best practices and shared resources will be required to have a successful system before brick and mortar organizations can be reduced or insurance companies create their own health care systems which can branch across state lines.
Ms. Thew is the medical director of the department of adolescent medicine at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at.
The article was updated 7/17/2020.