With patients under lockdown and health workers at risk of infection, telemedicine is being embraced like never before.
Virtual visits with doctors have increased ten-fold in the last few weeks, say experts, as physicians and health systems worldwide race to adopt virtual treatment options that eliminate the need for physical meetings between patients and health providers.
“I’d estimate that the majority of patient consultations in the United states are now happening virtually,” says Ray Dorsey, director of the Center for Health and Technology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He tells The Lancet “It’s as big a transformation as any ever before in the history of US health care.”
China was the first to implement widespread online visits when their health insurance agency agreed to pay for virtual care consultations because the hospitals and clinics were full.
According to a recent article published in the The Washington Post, on March 30, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the largest health-care payer in the country temporarily waived existing rules to allow coverage for more remote services. The 80 new covered services range from physical therapy consultations to physician home nursing visits.
“COVID-19 has in a matter of days demanded that whole segments of health care go virtual,” Kathleen T. Jordan, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco says in an opinion article for the Post.
“Not only does telemedicine make it possible for patients to remain inside their homes to slow the spread of the virus, but hospitals can now prepare for a surge of patients into our emergency rooms and intensive care units.”
While experts praise the efforts of the CMS to expedite telemedicine, some critics warn that the sudden rush to virtualization risks diminishing the quality of clinical care. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla tells The Lancet that he applauds the CMS’ stance but adds a caveat about the virtues of telemedicine.
“It’s inexpensive and expedient, but it’ll never be the same as a physical examination with all of its human qualities of judgment and communication. But with COVID-19, this is a trade-off we have to accept.”
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