When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he accomplished something that many telegraph devotees never thought possible: the synchronous, bidirectional transmission of voice over electrical lines.
This was an incredible milestone in the advancement of mankind and enabled true revolutions in commerce, scientific collaboration, and human interaction. But Mr. Bell knew his invention didn’t represent the final advancement in telecommunication; he was quite prescient in imagining a day when individuals could see each other while speaking on the phone.
Many years later, what was once only a dream is now commonplace, and children growing up today can’t imagine a world where apps such as FaceTime and Skype don’t exist. Until recently, however, the medical community has been slow to adopt the idea of video interactions. This has dramatically changed because of the pandemic and the need for social distancing. It appears that telemedicine has found its footing, but whether it will remain popular once patients feel safe going to see their doctors in person again remains to be seen. This month, we’ll examine a few key issues that will determine the future of virtual medical visits.
The pandemic has wrought both human and economic casualties. With fear, job loss, and regulations leading to decreased spending, many large and small businesses have been and will continue to be unable to survive. Companies, including Brooks Brothers, Hertz, Lord and Taylor, GNC, and J.C. Penney, have declared bankruptcy.1 Medical practices and hospitals have taken cuts to their bottom line, and we’ve heard of many physician groups that have had to enact substantial salary cuts or even lay off providers – something previously unheard of. Recent months have demonstrated the health care community’s commitment to put patients first, but we simply cannot survive if we aren’t adequately reimbursed. Traditionally, this has been a significant roadblock toward the widespread adoption of telemedicine.
In most cases, these visits were not reimbursed at all. Thankfully, shortly after the coronavirus hit our shores, Medicare and Medicaid changed their policies, offering equal payment for video and in-person patient encounters. Most private insurers have followed suit, but the commitment to this payment parity appears – thus far – to be temporary. It is unclear that the financial support of telemedicine will continue post COVID-19, and this has many physicians feeling uncomfortable. In the meantime, many patients have come to prefer virtual visits, appreciating the convenience and efficiency.
Physicians don’t always have the same experience. Telemedicine can be technically challenging and take just as much – or sometimes more – time to navigate and document. Unless they are reimbursed equitably, providers will be forced to limit their use of virtual visits or not offer them at all. This leads to another issue: reliability.
‘Can you hear me now?’
Over the past several months, we have had the opportunity to use telemedicine firsthand and have spoken to many other physicians and patients about their experiences with it. The reports are all quite consistent: Most have had generally positive things to say. Still, some common concerns emerge when diving a bit deeper. Most notably are complaints about usability and reliability of the software.
While there are large telemedicine companies that have developed world-class cross-platform products, many in use today are proprietary and EHR dependent. As a result, the quality varies widely. Many EHR vendors were caught completely off guard by the sudden demand for telemedicine and are playing catch-up as they develop their own virtual visit platforms. While these vendor-developed platforms promise tight integration with patient records, some have significant shortcomings in stability when taxed under high utilization, including choppy video and garbled voice. This simply won’t do if telemedicine is to survive. It is incumbent on software developers and health care providers to invest in high-quality, reliable platforms on which to build their virtual visit offerings. This will ensure a more rapid adoption and the “staying power” of the new technology.
Dialing ‘0’ for the operator
Once seen as a “novelty” offered by only a small number of medical providers, virtual visits now represent a significant and ever-increasing percentage of patient encounters. The technology therefore must be easy to use. Given confidentiality and documentation requirements, along with the broad variety of available computing platforms and devices (e.g., PC, Mac, iOS, and Android), the process is often far from problem free. Patients may need help downloading apps, setting up webcams, or registering for the service. Providers may face issues with Internet connectivity or EHR-related delays.
It is critical that help be available to make the connection seamless and the experience a positive one. We are fortunate to work for a health care institution that has made this a priority, dedicating a team of individuals to provide real-time support to patients and clinicians. Small independent practices may not have this luxury, but we would encourage all providers to engage with their telemedicine or EHR vendors to determine what resources are available when problems arise, as they undoubtedly will.
Answering the call
Like the invention of the telephone, the advent of telemedicine is another milestone on the journey toward better communication with our patients, and it appears to be here to stay. Virtual visits won’t completely replace in-person care, nor minimize the benefit of human interaction, but they will continue to play an important role in the care continuum. By addressing the above concerns, we’ll lay a solid foundation for success and create a positive experience for physicians and patients alike.
Dr. Notte is a family physician and chief medical officer of Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health. Follow him on Twitter (). Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health. They have no conflicts related to the content of this piece.
1.of companies that have filed for bankruptcy during the coronavirus pandemic. Fortune.