Telemedicine is fine, patients say, but most prefer face-to-face appointments: shots
New Yorker Charlie Freyre’s sinuses had bothered him for weeks during a COVID-19 surge in the city last winter. It was before vaccines became widely available.
“I was just trying to stay in my apartment as much as possible,” says Freyre, and so it just seemed to me the more convenient option to check in with his doctor via an online appointment. And you know, it was very straightforward and very easy. “
The $ 20 co-payment was well worth it for the 26-year-old advertising salesman, whose girlfriend also routinely relies on telemedicine to see her nutritionist. “It’s a very easy way to get an expert opinion without necessarily leaving your apartment,” says Freyre. “We all know what it can be like to see a doctor.”
But now Freyre has a sore knee – and he is not satisfied with visiting his doctor by phone or zoom. “This is something I want to get 100% personal treatment.”
Freyre’s telemedicine experience is pretty typical. Telemedicine continues to have its breakthrough – it is changing the way we receive routine medical care during the pandemic when visiting medical centers carries the risk of coronavirus infection. However, even today, as the risk of infection for vaccinated people is decreasing, many patients prefer a face-to-face examination and interview with doctors, nurses and other health care workers.
That is a result of a survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, in which patients were interviewed in August and September. Around 42% of the respondents stated that someone had used telemedicine in their household. Of these, 82% said they were satisfied, but almost two-thirds – 64% – would have preferred to see their nurse or doctor in person.
Personal visits can be more thorough
“I think people just really like that face-to-face visit,” said Rebekah Bernard, a family doctor in Fort Myer, Florida and a board member of Physicians for Patient Protection, who works to improve patient care. Bernard, who runs a concierge practice that charges patients a flat monthly fee for services, says it began offering telemedicine options to its patients five years ago, long before COVID-19 hit U.S. shores. None of her patients used it at the time. That all changed during the pandemic when patients told her the telemedicine option allayed her concerns about safe access to health care.
This type of shift in acceptance and its use could have a major impact on the role of telemedicine in the US in the future. Usage by various physical and mental health disciplines grew tremendously in 2020 as federal and state governments and insurance companies took emergency COVID-19 measures that relaxed coverage restrictions, privacy controls, and professional licenses. Now some of these rules for telemedicine appointments are being reintroduced.
Bernard, the doctor in Florida, says the last year has also shown her the limitations and drawbacks of telemedicine: “You may miss the opportunity to speak to the doctor who will say, ‘Hey, by the way, I see you had you no mammography or no pap [smear]. ‘ “
Both they and most patients prefer a personal visit because it is more personal, thorough, and ultimately better for the patient’s health.
A lifeline in rural areas
But when and where such visits are not possible, she says, telemedicine can be crucial. “It will be important to offer patients options and find out what makes the most sense in a certain area,” she says. “I’m sure that in rural areas or places where there aren’t many specialists like psychiatrists, for example, we really need to make sure that we have access to telemedicine for these patients.”
Countless telemedicine companies are already investing to achieve this.
TytoCare, based in New York City, helps medical centers and doctors to collect data on patients remotely by distributing devices that can, for example, sensitively measure patient oxygen levels or take pictures of the inside of their throats. David Bardan, vice president at TytoCare, says the data is then passed on to doctors who use it to diagnose medical problems.
Nursing homes in rural areas, for example, would use the service heavily, he says. “This is much more convenient than, in many cases, possibly having to air freight or even travel long distances to get access to these specialists,” he says. This is the kind of thing that telemedicine excels at, Barden says – and he believes these telemedicine uses will endure.
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