Telemedicine has skyrocketed during COVID-19, with many patients using it as an alternative to in-person care. However, while telehealth has made it possible for patients to receive routine care without the risk of exposure of viral spread, it’s at best a complement to existing care provision – not a replacement.
Where Telemedicine Falls Short
Telehealth has been a tremendous help during COVID-19. Physicians have been able to treat coronavirus patients from afar while also continuing to treat chronically ill patients who would be high-risk if they contracted the virus. However, telemedicine is still a fairly new technology and one that has become the norm only through an emergency situation. As patients and physicians alike grapple with poor connections, awkward interfaces, and confusing EHR reporting, it’s clear that telehealth falls short of being a panacea.
Technical and HIPAA challenges and concerns aside, it’s extremely difficult for physicians to get a full picture of their patient’s condition on a remote call. Vitals can’t be checked, and physicians can’t easily observe or examine their patients beyond what is being directly reported to them. Language barriers are another challenge far harder to overcome virtually than in person. The result is superficial, generic care. It’s enough in some instances but falls far short in others.
The Value of Physical Doctors’ Offices
An enormous part of a primary care physician’s work is making a patient feel comfortable and safe. Trust between a physician and a patient develops over time, and often in those small moments of “chitchat” where a patient reveals what’s truly bothering them, or when a physician points out a symptom or issue that the patient might not have noticed or decided to talk about. An in-person, low power distance setting such as a physician’s office facilitates these kinds of highly personal interactions, whereas the face-on nature of a telehealth appointment is far less conducive.
In addition, beyond the consulting room itself, the physical clinic is a multi-touch, professional space that has been designed to provide a high-trust, patient-centric experience from end-to-end. Everything from check-in to the waiting room to the consultation rooms have been carefully appointed to exude calm, professionalism, and expertise. In contrast, physicians have far less control over the experience during a telehealth call. Technical glitches or background noise and distractions can all detract from the patient experience – and there’s little by way of greeting or support from administrative staff.
These Are Not Ordinary Times
Telemedicine has become a healthcare trend out of necessity, but there are indications that it’s not one that’s here to stay, or at least at the levels we’ve been seeing. And as insurance providers remain non-committal about post-COVID reimbursements, it’s more than likely that demand will drop off as clinics gradually shift their care back towards in-person visits.
While some providers, such as those in rural areas, may consider expanding their telehealth provision, the traditional doctor’s office will continue to be the lifeblood of primary care provision. There’s no doubt that telemedicine has its role, but in all but the most extreme times, it’s one that works in complement with the traditional doctor’s office.