The Coronavirus Outbreak Could Finally Make Telemedicine Mainstream in the U.S.
For years, telemedicine has been pitched as a way to democratize medicine by driving down costs, increasing access to care and making appointments more efficient. It sounds great—until you look at the data, and find that only about 10% of Americans have actually used telemedicine to make a virtual visit, according to one 2019 survey.
An outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 could change that. If extreme measures like mass quarantines come to pass, telehealth could finally have its bittersweet moment in the spotlight, potentially generating momentum that proponents hope will continue once life returns to normal.
“Something like having to stay home could springboard telehealth tremendously, because when we get over this—and we will—people will have had that experience, and they’ll be saying, ‘Well, why can’t I do other aspects of my health care that way?’” says Dr. Joe Kvedar, president-elect of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA).
As of March 3, more than 92,000 people worldwide have been sickened by the virus that causes COVID-19, including more than 100 in the U.S. As both numbers trend upward, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that increased person-to-person spread in U.S. communities is likely, and that containment measures may become increasingly disruptive to daily life. If the situation reaches the point where public health officials are encouraging or requiring people to stay home, the health care system may have to offer many medical appointments via telehealth services, the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier said during a Feb. 26 press briefing.
Kvedar says telehealth tools offered by health plans, private companies and pharmacies are ready and waiting for that possibility. There are some limitations to telehealth’s utility for COVID-19 testing—you can’t take a chest x-ray or collect a sample for lab testing remotely, after all—but Kvedar says it could be used for initial symptom assessment and questioning, as well as non-virus-related appointments that couldn’t happen in person due to precautions. If a patient turned up at an emergency room with possible COVID-19 symptoms, doctors could also do initial intake via virtual platforms, while keeping the patient in isolation to minimize spread within the vulnerable health care environment, he says.
Telehealth giants like Amwell and Teladoc are now advertising their availability for coronavirus-related appointments, and Teladoc’s stock prices spiked in late February. XRHealth, a company that makes health-focused virtual reality applications, is this week providing Israel’s Sheba Medical Center with VR headsets that will both allow doctors to monitor COVID-19 patients remotely, and enable quarantined patients to “travel” beyond their rooms using VR, says XRHealth CEO Eran Orr. The company will next week begin working with hospitals to deploy the technology in the U.S., Orr says.
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