Is telehealth here to stay?


When the pandemic shuttered nearly everything last March my son was in the middle of an intensive, months-long medical diagnosis and procedure.

The doctor’s office closed. No one was allowed in or out. I panicked. Now what?

Within a week, the staff had set up telehealth options, allowing my son to see his doctor via video conferencing. We didn’t miss a single appointment.

Across the nation medical professionals closed their doors and switched on their computers when they could. Now, according to a recent survey by Updox, a healthcare communication platform, more than 42 percent of patients in the U.S. log on to visit their physician.

As restrictions begin to lift in Alabama and other states, I check in each week to ask if we can continue to keep our appointments from the comfort of our dining room table. Frankly, I didn’t miss driving across the bay and leaving work and school early.

Do virtual appointments have to end?

Maybe not.

Of the telehealth using patients surveyed, more than half prefer the out of office, virtual experience.

The Updox survey says 65% of respondents say telehealth visits are more convenient and 63 percent say they enjoy not being exposed to other potentially sick patients.

Dr. Michael McBrearty, Thomas Hospital’s vice president of Medical Affairs, said locally doctors saw an uptick in telehealth use both via video chat and phone calls.

“Technology is taking leaps and bounds in making healthcare accessible,” McBrearty said. “Doctors can correspond with you through emails. Some phones can take an EKG and check your pulse, soon some will be able to check your blood pressure. It’s almost like Dick Tracy is automatically sending this to your doctor.”

McBrearty said in many cases telehealth can be convenient for the doctor and important for patients who cannot risk sitting in a room full of potential contagions.

For a diagnosis that needs a hands-on approach, McBrearty said instruments are being designed that link to the computer and serve as a stethoscope to hear heart beats or an otoscope to look inside ears.

“Technology is getting so good there are things we never thought about doing that will soon be normal,” he said.

Of course, there are things physicians can’t do virtually, even in the simplest of cases.

“How many diagnoses will we miss when we don’t look eye to eye and we don’t see the patient’s facial expressions,” McBrearty said. “When I get through talking to someone I want to know their facial expression.”

He adds that many physicians fear there is room for abuse within a largely virtual medical system.

“This gives people less ability to question their doctor. If they don’t understand what’s going on or have questions he can just cut them off, though that’s not unique to telemedicine. That happens now,” McBrearty said.

He added that physicians who are worried about cash flow and not patient outcome can profit from a telehealth system.

“If they do virtual visits and just zip in and out of calls eventually that can hurt the practice of medicine,” he said.

Still, virtual visits are most likely here to stay.

“It’s too convenient,” he said.