Rheumatologists are seeing the number of telehealth visits skyrocket in their practices as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and patients seek out alternatives to in-person visits. Telemedicine makes it easier for patients to connect with physicians, but not all patients have access to a computer or device. It also limits what a physician can do. Rheumatologists often rely on physical exams to make diagnoses and treatment decisions – an obstacle if you’re looking at patients through a computer screen.
Presenters at the 2020 Coalition of State Rheumatology Organizations’ state advocacy conference discussed the benefits and challenges of this mode of care in early September. Within weeks, the U.S. health system eliminated almost half of all medical care as the pandemic ramped up and things went virtual, said Larry Van Horn, PhD, MPH, a speaker at the CSRO conference. Still, “we are in uncharted territory with respect to how telehealth is being used. ... It’s being deployed everywhere, but it’s too early to tell how it’s affecting patient outcomes,” said Dr. Van Horn, founder and director of the Center of Health Care Market Innovation at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
Patients seem to like using telemedicine, observed New Jersey state Sen. Herb Conaway, MD, another presenter. “I think it’s here to stay, and it’s likely to expand going forward. But physicians and others are going to want to make sure it’s used appropriately.”
Some payers feel that telemedicine should be billed differently than brick and mortar visits, Dr. Conaway said. “Physicians feel differently about that, and so we’ll see how this goes, moving forward.”
Lately, there have been discussions of liability concerns associated with telemedicine, said CSRO President Madelaine A. Feldman, MD, who practices in New Orleans. “There are some things you can miss with virtual visits. Certain new patient visits may need to be done in person.”
The landscape of telehealth in rheumatology
Telehealth has directly affected the way rheumatologists do business. In a national survey of more than 1,100 adult patients, the American College of Rheumatology found that 66% are choosing telehealth for rheumatology visits, mainly to avoid exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This contrasts with a 52% decline in the percentage of patients who are currently seeing a rheumatologist since 2019. “The pandemic has altered almost every aspect of our rheumatology practices,” said ACR President Ellen Gravallese, MD in a statement. “It has impacted our patients’ lives significantly and required us to create new ways of delivering care through improved telehealth and other adaptations.”
While many rheumatologists have resumed in-person visits, “others, like myself, are doing a hybrid,” Dr. Feldman said.
At the height of the pandemic in New York City, Elana J. Bernstein, MD’s practice relied entirely on telehealth visits. “We weren’t seeing any patients in the office for a couple of months. Now that things have reopened here, we’ve resumed face-to-face visits,” keeping some telehealth visits for patients who are still uncomfortable with in-person visits or who live far away, Dr. Bernstein, director of the scleroderma program at Columbia University, New York, said in an interview. She estimates that telehealth represents about 20%-30% of her practice right now.