As of June 24, the United States officially has over 2.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. Many hospitals across the country are overwhelmed with the surging caseload, leading numerous Americans to avoid hospitals altogether to reduce their chances of catching the disease. That instinct is understandable — more than 9,000 nurses, doctors, and other health care workers have contracted COVID-19 on the job — but we cannot hit pause on all ongoing health needs. This crisis has made it clear that there is an opportunity for the American health care system to provide alternatives for patients seeking care while staying at home. As we continue to socially distance, we need to move forward and make telemedicine our initial instinct, rather than our last resort.
Across the country, COVID-19 is disrupting health care. As an ER doctor and the CMO/CEO of Innovation Health in Northern Virginia, I am seeing members and patients alike neglect their health. COVID-19 has driven people to forgo health care — including necessary checkups for chronic conditions and behavioral health treatment such as therapy. People are even postponing essential, lifesaving care: Hospital and ER visits are down by half since COVID-19 began to spread. We cannot continue to ignore our minds and bodies as we wait out this pandemic.
Telemedicine provides a solution to that problem, allowing patients to access high-quality care while avoiding exposure to others. Using video calls and advances in digital communication, patients can receive routine care from a safe location through their phones or computers. When a patient experiences a minor injury or has a question about their condition or prescription, telemedicine lets them speak with a doctor. For example, if you have a sore throat or some other mild symptom, you can use a telemedicine service to get guidance on how to ease your discomfort or, depending on the provider, a prescription for the necessary medication.
These services may seem simple to some, but for those suffering from chronic conditions, like diabetes or asthma, where the majority of care focuses on education, lifestyle and access to critical maintenance medication, telemedicine can be a lifeline. And, most importantly, these services are essential to the vulnerable, such as seniors or those who are immunocompromised — they are at a heightened risk of both contracting COVID-19 and experiencing complications with the disease, and these services help them mitigate that risk.
Despite all of telemedicine’s advantages, it is currently underused. It’s not for lack of opportunity — according to the American Hospital Association, 76 percent of U.S. hospitals offer some kind of telemedicine, and many state public and private insurers have some form of coverage for telehealth services. Before COVID-19, a Deloitte study found that only a quarter of Americans had used a telehealth service to see a clinician. In the midst of this pandemic, a study from Civic Science found 30 percent of adults intend to use telemedicine; that’s a significant increase, aided by the number of health care providers working to make telemedicine a priority, but I think we can and should get those figures higher.
Under our current circumstances, telemedicine is the safest way to receive acute and chronic care. Over the last three months, I have seen patients successfully receive the care they need from the safety of their homes, helping to flatten the curve and limit the spread of COVID-19 — other medical professionals and health care providers want the same for their patients and members. Throughout the D.C. metro area, providers are working to add or improve their telemedicine platforms and launch new education, member outreach, and advertising campaigns to raise awareness for telemedicine. Now we just need the American public to make use of these offerings.
The time is now, both as patients and members of society, to be responsible for one another’s health and safety while still maintaining our own. We need to take advantage of the services health care providers, doctors and hospitals have worked hard to create and make telemedicine a more consistent part of our lives until this crisis has abated. I believe that virtual care will be a larger part of our lives throughout the rest of this outbreak and moving forward. If you have questions about your telemedicine options, contact your health care provider to explore your options.
Dr. Sunil Budhrani is an ER doctor and the chief medical officer and chief executive officer of Innovation Health, a joint venture health care insurance company between Inova Health System & Aetna, a CVS Health Company, offering commercial and Medicare services in the D.C. metro area.
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