Seeing patients with vulvar problems via telemedicine can lead to efficient and successful care, but there are challenges and limitations with this approach, doctors are finding.
Image quality is one key factor that determines whether a clinician can assess and manage a condition remotely, said Aruna Venkatesan, MD, chief of dermatology and director of the genital dermatology clinic at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif. Other issues may be especially relevant to televulvology, including privacy concerns.
“Who is helping with the positioning? Who is the photographer? Is the patient comfortable with having photos taken of this part of their body and submitted, even if they know it is submitted securely? Because they might not be,” Dr. Venkatesan said in a lecture at a virtual conference on diseases of the vulva and vagina, hosted by the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease.
When quality photographs from referring providers are available, Dr. Venkatesan has conducted virtual new consultations. “But sometimes I will do a virtual telemedicine visit as the first visit and then figure out, okay, this isn’t really sufficient. I need to see them in person.”
Melissa Mauskar, MD, assistant professor of dermatology and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, described a case early on during the COVID-19 pandemic that illustrates a limitation of virtual visits.
A patient sent in a photograph that appeared to show lichen sclerosus. “There looked like some classic lichen sclerosus changes,” Dr. Mauskar said during a discussion at the meeting. “But she was having a lot of pain, and after a week, her pain still was not better.”
Dr. Mauskar brought the patient into the office and ultimately diagnosed a squamous cell carcinoma. “What I thought was a normal erosion was actually an ulcerated plaque,” she said.
Like Dr. Venkatesan, Dr. Mauskar has found that image quality can be uneven. Photographs may be out of focus. Video visits have been a mixed bag. Some are successful. Other times, Dr. Mauskar has to tell the patient she needs to see her in the office.
Certain clinical scenarios require a vaginal exam, Dr. Venkatesan noted. Although some type of assessment may be possible if a patient is with a primary care provider during the telemedicine visit, the examination may not be equivalent. Doctors also should anticipate where a patient might go to have a biopsy if one is necessary.
Another telemedicine caveat pertains to patient counseling. When using store-and-forward telemedicine systems, advising patients in a written report can be challenging. “Is there an easy way ... to counsel patients how to apply their topical medications?” Dr. Venkatesan said.
Excellent care is possible
Vulvology is a small part of Dr. Venkatesan’s general dermatology practice, which has used telemedicine extensively since the pandemic.
In recent years, Dr. Venkatesan’s clinic began encouraging providers in their health system to submit photographs with referrals. “That has really paid off now because we have been able to help provide a lot of excellent quality care for patients without them having to come in,” she said. “We may be able to say: ‘These are excellent photos. We know what this patient has. We can manage it. They don’t need to come see us in person.’ ” That could be the case for certain types of acne, eczema, and psoriasis.