During the coronavirus pandemic, telemedicine became a virtual phenomenon. As people remained in their homes during the pandemic, they began chatting with their doctors over the phone or video platforms on subjects such as chronic disease management, ongoing medical support, mental health issues and specialty care.
To reach their patients, many health professionals had to figure out quickly how to set up their first online systems for telemedicine, also known as telehealth.
"Doctors hadn't provided it as an option previously because the infrastructure and technology wasn't widely available," said Dr. Shira Fischer, a physician policy researcher at the RAND Corp., which has conducted surveys asking Americans whether they use telehealth.
Fisher noted that in a February 2019 survey, less than 4% of the respondents said they used video telehealth. But two years later during the pandemic, that number had skyrocketed to 45%.
"I think telehealth is great," said Michael Wu, a restaurant manager who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. "When I have a cold or the flu, I don't have to take time off work to go to the doctor's office for an exam, and maybe to get medication. It's easier for me to have a video appointment with my doctor using my cellphone."
Here to stay
Many health professionals think telemedicine is here to stay.
"Telehealth can be really useful," Dr. Jack Resneck Jr., president of the American Medical Association, told VOA. "If you're talking to a patient with diabetes, for instance, and you ask them about their diet, they can point their camera phone at the food in their refrigerator and show you what they eat."
According to a 2021 AMA survey of doctors, a majority of physicians enthusiastically embraced telehealth and expected to use it more often. Some 85% of them said they were using telehealth to care for their patients.
Over the last two years, "we have seen telemedicine seamlessly integrated into health care," said Resneck.
This also includes private health insurance companies and Medicare (a U.S. government national insurance program) "suddenly covering the cost of telehealth," which hadn't been the case before, he said.
Patients, providers save time
Nevertheless, some patients remain reluctant to give up the person-to-person contact that comes with a traditional visit to a doctor's office.
"I'm not opposed to it, but I'm wary about using it for my child," said Erin Thompson, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
"When my daughter is sick, I feel more comfortable bringing her to see the doctor in person, instead of her talking to him on a video screen."
Despite such reservations, telehealth offers a host of benefits, such as increasing patients' access to health care and helping health care providers determine whether a patient needs additional treatment in person. Telehealth can also help reduce expensive and unnecessary trips to the emergency room.
"Telehealth is definitely gaining traction in Lubbock, Texas," said Dr. Ariel Santos, director of the telemedicine program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. "Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a more than a 200% increase in telemedicine within our organization."
Santos, who is also the vice chair of the department of surgery at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, thinks telehealth is a win-win for doctors and their patients.
"Many follow-up appointments with patients after surgery could be done through a video conference rather than an office visit," he told VOA, adding that "telemedicine also reduces unnecessary travel for both the health provider and patient and improves access to health care, especially in rural areas."
Dr. Karen Rheuban, a pediatric cardiologist and pioneer in the telehealth field, agrees. She is the director of the Karen S. Rheuban Center for Telehealth at the University of Virginia, which was named after her in 2016 for her significant contributions to the field of telemedicine. They include telehealth services in rural and underserved areas of Virginia and lifesaving care for stroke victims.
"Patients love telemedicine," she said, "and it's convenient for them to receive care in their homes."
Rheuban said whether it's enabling physicians to provide an emergency service, such as prescribing clot-busting medication for a stroke, or helping patients manage a chronic condition such as heart disease, telemedicine has grown and can save lives around the world.
Telemedicine has also revolutionized behavioral health.
"It is an incredibly useful tool," said Terry Rabinowitz, medical director of the psychiatric consultation service at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
"Some patients have a lot easier time showing up for telemedicine encounters," said Rabinowitz, who has been doing telepsychiatry for 20 years. "It's very useful for patients with psychiatric illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders because they may be averse to seeing someone face-to-face or even putting on their clothes to come for a visit."
Accessibility, privacy concerns
Telehealth can have its challenges, however.
"Some people don't have good internet access or don't know how to use it. And some people are worried about their privacy," said Fischer at the RAND Corp. Rabinowitz said broadband internet needs to be increased in underserved and rural areas.
Santos at Texas Tech said while some doctors and patients may be hesitant to use telehealth, it can "make it quicker and easier for patients to be seen by a physician."
Telehealth won't completely take over in-office visits, Santos said.
"Obviously, some health issues require the patient to be seen in person by a doctor," he said. "And sometimes it may be difficult for me to express my empathy and concern through an online connection."
Still, he said, telehealth will become more prominent in the future, and "there could even be public libraries with telemedicine kiosks."