Telehealth: An Essential Tool in the Fight Against the Coronavirus

March 12, 2020 - 7 minutes read

Yesterday in Geneva, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus contagion to be a pandemic. This designation means that the sickness is spreading in numerous countries simultaneously. It’s also a grave acknowledgment that current measures to contain the malady’s spread are not succeeding.

As medical organizations mount more efforts to combat the transmission of the coronavirus, telehealth is becoming an essential tool in this fight. Not only does it allow physicians to safely treat patients, but it also stymies the spread of infection at medical facilities. Unsurprisingly, the number of virtual visits has spiked recently.

A Turning Point for Telehealth

A man who had recently traveled to several destinations, including a pit stop in Tokyo, called Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He had experienced a fever and a cough roughly a week ago but was feeling completely normal now. Rush University Medical Center had set up a virtual medical line for this exact scenario: To screen patients for coronavirus.

Dr. Meeta Shah, an ER physician at the institution, took the call. After hearing keywords like ‘fever’, ‘fatigue’, and ‘cough’, she said that the man did not need to be admitted. Instead, she referred him to Chicago’s health department.

Across the United States, large hospitals like Rush are turning to telemedicine to screen people and contain the spread of coronavirus. These remote capabilities are also allowing them to safely treat infected patients. “This is a kind of turning point for virtual health,” Dr. Shah explains. “We’re actually seeing how it can be used in a public health crisis.”

Having a doctor’s appointment via phone or computer is hardly a new medical development. But telemedicine has yet to really take off in the US. For some time now, many health insurance plans have offered the option to talk to medical providers online. The vast majority of US citizens just never took advantage of this avenue.

With the coronavirus becoming a global crisis, hospital networks, physicians, and patients are quickly rethinking telehealth’s role in medical treatment.

Scaling to Manage the Pandemic Panic

The US government has also taken notice of telehealth’s integral role in battling the coronavirus. Congress recently approved an $8.3 billion emergency funding package to aid the US response to the infectious threat. As part of this measure, lawmakers have also agreed to loosen Medicare program restrictions on the use of telehealth.

Recently, Dogtown Media signed a letter authored by the Connected Health Initiative (CHI) to US House and Senate leadership requesting that federal law be amended to ease telehealth use during this emergency. We’re extremely proud to see this response. But as Morgan Reed, CHI’s Executive Director, explains, more work must be done for future crises:

“We got into the situation because we didn’t solve this over the years that we have been asking Congress to solve this problem of preventing telemedicine from being reimbursed. Our response today is two-fold: One, solve the immediate problem to help with the coronavirus, and that is with real-time voice and video and remote patient monitoring. Two, how do we solve for the next crisis?”

Still, this change in Medicare telehealth restrictions is certainly a step in the right direction. More patients will now be able to get guidance on whether they should be tested or seen in-person before rushing to the doctor’s office. This also allows medical staff to take proper preventative measures.

Last week, before admitting a person believed to have the coronavirus, Rush University Medical Center was able to clear out the ambulance bay to decrease any chance of staff members and other patients getting infected. The person was taken to an isolation room and seen by a physician and nurse in full protective gear, as well as an infectious disease specialist via iPad.

Ultimately, the patient in question was confirmed to have the coronavirus. But thanks to Rush’s pre-emptive tactics, the facility avoided the fate of many other US hospitals, where numerous healthcare workers have become infected by patients and quarantined.

The New Front Line for Patients

As health systems race to adapt telehealth, it’s clear that these virtual services have become the new front line in humanity’s war with coronavirus. “Telehealth is being rediscovered,” says Dr. Peter Antall, the Chief Medical Officer for Boston-based telehealth developer AmWell. “Everybody recognizes this is an all hands on deck moment. We need to scale up wherever we can.”

Of course, it’s important to note that telemedicine’s digital capabilities do have their limits. Zoom+Care, a chain of clinics in the Northwest region of the US, is encouraging patients to use an online feature to assess their risks. But assessment is not the same as an actual test for the virus.

“We’re being very explicit at Zoom+Care that we can’t test you for Covid-19,” explains Dr. Mark Zeitzer, Zoom+Care’s Medical Director of Acute Care Services. After an assessment, patients may be told to self-isolate and monitor their symptoms.

While telehealth can’t solve everything, it is helping to limit the spread of coronavirus. And, via remote monitoring, it’s also aiding in taking care of high-risk patients who have chronic medical conditions. Stay tuned for more updates on how telemedicine is helping healthcare organizations fight the coronavirus.

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