COVID-19 has transformed the landscape of health care delivery. It has resulted in rapid growth of telehealth, especially in primary care.
Prior to the pandemic, less than 15% of Americans had experience with telehealth. As of last September, 57% of Americans had reported using it, according to professional medical network Doximity. Now, nine months later, the statistics would likely be even higher.
The high adoption rate of telemedicine among patients and providers alike has been the driver behind its success. Safety was the impetus of the telehealth movement, but the result has been improving health care delivery.
There is no reason for a busy parent, professional, employee, college student, or those with mobility issues to have to battle any roadblocks to accessing quality health care. Telehealth allows for health care to be woven into people’s lives so that they can continue to do the things that are important to them while receiving the health care that they need. It saves time, prevents the need for daycare, and minimizes time off from work for clinic visits.
Telehealth has become user friendly. All that is needed is internet access and a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Patients click on a link to join their visit, much like using FaceTime or being in a Zoom meeting, but the link is secure to ensure patient confidentiality. Due to COVID, insurance covers telemedicine visits at the same rate as office visits. Many patients are initially intimidated by virtual visits. However, they soon come to not only prefer it, but to expect it.
Many primary care services can be offered via telemedicine, including health and wellness, management of chronic illnesses, and urgent care visits.
Telehealth en–ables the primary care provider to assist patients with their goals related to health and wellness by providing education and recommendations. Some examples of this include disease prevention, health promotion, screening, diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, stress reduction, weight loss, and assistance with alcohol and tobacco cessation. This in turn decreases the risk for development of many cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.
Those struggling with chronic disease and survivors of serious illnesses often feel like they are living in a different body than they had prior to their illness. Their bodies don’t always function as they did prior to the illness, and they often experience newfound health issues. Primary care providers are able to work with patients to minimize side effects and maximize lifestyle interventions in order to achieve an improved state of wellness. In-person visits are not necessary to accomplish these goals.
Many urgent care problems can be managed via virtual visits. There are times when an urgent care clinic or ER cannot be avoided, but when it can, telehealth has advantages. Telehealth provides access to timely health care, so people can feel better faster, without the need to reschedule their entire day based on a clinic appointment. Most of the time, early access to health care means faster relief.
Is telehealth safe? The answer is, yes. There is published literature in every specialty that telehealth can be performed safely and effectively. Some areas of medicine, such as primary care, are more conducive to telehealth than others. The American Academy of Family Physicians supports the use of telehealth. The organization’s statement on telehealth says, “The AAFP supports expanded use of telehealth and telemedicine as an appropriate and efficient means of improving health, when conducted within the context of appropriate standards of care.”
With so many large online telehealth practices out there, why choose a local provider for care? There are many benefits to continuing care with your primary care provider. Your provider knows you and your medical history and thus the odds of a correct diagnosis is much higher. The most important part of a medical visit is having the provider genuinely listen to you and partner with you.
Many large telemedicine primary care and urgent care companies only address one problem at a time and do not have the capability of ordering labs and imaging, so the problems they can manage are often limited to extremely simple ones. Primary care providers in the Spokane area have the ability to send lab or imaging orders to the local lab or imaging center of your choice. Furthermore, prescriptions can easily and conveniently be sent to your local pharmacy.
While there are still many unknowns on the specifics of insurance reimbursement for telehealth visits post public health emergency, health care stakeholders and lawmakers have already taken steps to ensure telehealth services continue once the pandemic ends on both a national and state level.
Washington state is one of the more aggressive states in support of telehealth services. On May 3, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1196, requiring health plans to cover certain audio-only telehealth services at the same rate as in-person services as long as the patient has been seen in person by the provider within the past year. This law will take effect Jan. 1, 2023.
After over a year of losses related to COVID-19, it is nice to see at least one positive change come from this pandemic. COVID has created an explosion of telehealth services, raising the bar for delivery of health care. As a result, primary care has become more accessible. Individuals now expect health care to mold to their lifestyle and schedule rather than working around an arduous health care system.
Jessica Blackwell is the owner of eVillageHealth, a Chattaroy-based primary care practice that offers patients in-person and telehealth visits. She is a family nurse practitioner with over 20 years of experience. She can be reached at 509.960.6527 or through her website at www.evillagehealth.com.
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