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With the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. rising daily, Americans are preparing for the possibility that they may have to isolate themselves by working from home or keeping their children out of school.
The virus presents a tricky problem for medical providers, though. Doctors need to see patients to diagnose and treat them. But hospitals could become a breeding ground for infection if flooded by people carrying the coronavirus.
A possible solution to this problem is telemedicine: virtual doctors’ visits performed over the phone or internet. Telemedicine could allow patients to consult with a doctor without risking spreading the virus if they have it — or contracting it if they don’t. Virtual doctors could also lighten the load on hospitals by freeing them to focus on only the most critical cases.
Telemedicine has been seen as a win-win by many in the medical profession for some time. It benefits patients by saving them time and expands access to people who may have a difficult time getting to a physical doctor’s office. Providers like it because it’s cost-effective, efficient and can limit the number of “worried well” who come to hospitals unnecessarily.
Despite its benefits, though, only about 10 percent of Americans have used telemedicine.
Why there’s debate
Advocates are hoping that the coronavirus will lead to a boom in the use of telemedicine that endures after the outbreak has been contained. One of the main barriers to expanding virtual health, research shows, is that most people simply don’t know it’s an option.
Awareness may grow now. People in isolation because of the virus might discover telemedicine for the first time and continue using it in the future. China’s virtual health industry has exploded in response to the quarantines imposed by the government.
There’s also hope that the urgency of the outbreak could compel lawmakers to increase funding for virtual health and break down some of the legislative barriers that prevent the practice from being used more broadly. Some insurance companies have increased their investment in virtual health in response to the virus. Last week, Congress approved a bill that included $500 million in funding for telemedicine for seniors in rural areas.
Skeptics argue that telemedicine has limitations that could hold back wider adoption. For starters, an online appointment can only do so much to treat COVID-19. It can help rule out obvious negative cases, but any definitive diagnosis has to be done in person. Telemedicine in is also subject to the same labyrinth of laws, insurance and cost that block people from accessing medical care more broadly in the U.S.
Patients could be introduced to the benefits of telemedicine because of the outbreak
“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.” — Jamie Ducharme, Time
The virus could compel lawmakers to boost telemedicine funding
“Coronavirus supplemental budget talks have presented a unique opportunity for [telemedicine] groups and sympathetic lawmakers to work in a telehealth provision.” — Mohana Ravindranath, Politico
Virtual appointments can limit exposure risk and lighten the load on hospitals
“Virtual services, like online symptom-checking tools and remote consults with doctors, could keep the so-called ‘worried well’ from flooding hospitals. If the healthiest people don’t show up in emergency rooms, that could mean that more resources are available to treat the sickest and most vulnerable patients.” — Christina Farr, CNBC
Doctors could see more patients and avoid getting sick
“Telemedicine can play a major role in this outbreak by allowing providers to avoid proximate risk of infection while electronically visiting large numbers of patients daily. Even infected or exposed doctors can ‘stay in the fight’ by performing telemedicine visits while quarantined.” — James Phillips, CNN
The virus has already caused a telemedicine boom in China
“When SARs, a coronavirus, hit China in 2003 citizens hunkered down at home. This proved a blessing for some businesses. Chinese social media took off. … A novel coronavirus that has brought China to a halt this year is boosting another fledgling industry: telemedicine.” — Economist
The virus could accelerate change that was already happening
“I suspect that this outbreak might be the tipping point. … Five or 10 years from now, the idea that I took off half a day of work, drove 20 minutes, parked and paid $15 for parking to go see a doctor for 14 minutes is going to seem crazy.” Dr. Robert Wachter to Marketplace
Virtual appointments can only do so much to fight the virus
“Telehealth has its limits as well. For COVID-19, which appears to be primarily a respiratory illness, many clinicians are looking into patients’ lungs to get an adequate assessment of their condition. Digital tools can’t really be used to do something like that unless patients already have the equipment at home.” — Erin Brodwin, Stat
America’s patchwork health insurance system is holding back telemedicine
“Telemedicine is one of the great healthcare promises of our time. So why isn't it everywhere? Because no one has figured out how to bill patients yet.” — Dan Robitzski, Fatherly
Many people still don’t have reliable internet access
“Connectivity is vastly improved, although there are still people in certain regions of the country and obviously in large portions of the world with limited access to the internet.” — Telemedicine expert Ray Dorsey to The Hill
Legal constraints make widespread use difficult
“One of the most important barriers to adoption — arguably the most important — is the unfavorable regulatory environment. It’s not that governmental policies and regulations are hostile to telehealth. Rather, they are complex and often difficult to navigate.” — Mohit Joshi, Forbes
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