Healthcare providers are in a unique situation. They’re responsible for keeping people healthy, but the close contact puts both patients and caregivers at risk for infection. Providers are using every tool they can to deliver care to people in the safest, most efficient ways possible.
Virtual care, real solutions
Telehealth is one of those tools. It allows providers and patients to have real-time appointments using phone and video technology. It began as a way for patients in rural communities without a clinic or hospital nearby to get medical attention.
Over the last few years, telehealth has been more widely. With a virtual visit, you can get immediate advice for an urgent health problem. A video call can bring a family member who can’t be there in person to go to your doctor’s appointment — or your primary care doctor can use it to bring a specialist in during your appointment.
Although healthcare providers have used telehealth before COVID-19, many patients didn’t use it.
Dr. Karen Fann, an ear, nose and throat physician at El Camino Health, hadn’t used telehealth before — no one had asked for it. Now, she says using it has been eye-opening.
“When we began shelter in place, I had a patient come in crying,” Dr. Fann said. “She said, ‘I don’t want to be here, but I’m worried.’ It made me realize how important it was for us to give patients the care they need in a way that makes them comfortable and keeps them safe. Telehealth lets us do that.”
To keep patients and staff safe, healthcare providers are carefully screening patients before they go into the office to make sure only those who need an in-person visit — those who have severe or worrisome symptoms or need a procedure right away — go in.
“We use real-time video whenever possible for those who have a smartphone or a laptop with a camera and microphone,” Dr. Fann said. “With video, I can do a mini-exam. They can show me their tonsils, and I can see up their nose. I was even able to do neurological testing by having a patient mirror what I was doing. I’ve even had patients download an app on their phone that lets them do a basic hearing test.”
Sometimes a virtual appointment confirms a patient needs to go in for an office visit or be referred to another specialist. And, because a patient’s medical history is already discussed during the appointment, it minimizes their time in the office, protecting both patients and staff. But, it’s important for people considering a virtual visit to work with a local provider who’s affiliated with a local healthcare system — one that has the physician network and facilities where you can see a doctor in person or get lab or imaging tests.
A telehealth visit shouldn’t fully replace the benefits of an in-person visit which is essential to developing your relationship with your provider. Still, sometimes a phone or virtual visit can be all someone needs — especially as doctors become adept at applying their assessment protocols to video and phone applications. Patients can get a prescription refill or even get peace of mind that they are OK.
“For people who have a medication adjustment, which we can do online or over the phone, a virtual visit can be a great option,” said Dr. Fann. “Often, when we ask patients to come in after a period for a check-in, they’re too busy to do it. With telehealth, they’re more likely to comply with their treatment. They can take 10 minutes to call from anywhere — from home or a private area at work — and they don’t have to take time away from work or sit in traffic.”
And, many insurance providers, including Medicare, recognize the value of virtual care. Recently, they expanded coverage for a broader range of telehealth services to ensure people get the care they need. Check with your provider to learn about your coverage.
Virtual support can be the next best thing to being there
Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and other platforms have become indispensable personally and professionally. They let us work from home and keep in touch with friends and family. They offer real-time support when getting together in person isn’t possible.
For people who rely on support groups or classes to stay healthy — both mentally and physically — virtual meetings can make all the difference.
At El Camino Health, the Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP) uses twice-weekly, 90-minute classes to help participants make positive lifestyle choices to improve their health and prevent diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and more. Participants were on their fifth week of the program — about halfway through — when the shelter-in-place took effect.
Dr. Catherine Collings, a cardiologist leading the lifestyle medicine program at El Camino Health, and Mimi April, a lifestyle medicine coach and facilitator of CHIP, wanted to keep the group’s momentum going to make sure participants stayed on track.
“We felt we owed it to these folks to keep things going without a lapse during shelter-in-place,” April said. “Thankfully, the technology was available to do our next class virtually. Nine of the 13 participants used a video component, which I think made a difference. They’d made a big commitment over the past weeks and had become friends, and some were challenged with continuing the necessary lifestyle changes. That’s why being able to be together as a group virtually was so important.”
The lifestyle medicine team is also offering free virtual classes online to help everyone lead a healthier life during shelter-in-place — not just CHIP participants. People can get expert advice about nutrition, exercise and more.
People are finding that virtual platforms can be the next best thing to being there in person — even those who’d never used them in the past. And, they’re getting comfortable with them, which makes it likely that more people will consider virtual healthcare options in the future, post-coronavirus. Virtual technology gives healthcare providers another tool to help their patients stay healthy, and it makes it more convenient for patients to take good care of themselves.
Find an El Camino Health primary care doctor or specialist who is available for in-person, phone and video visits and can generally see you within 24 hours.