As a retiree, Boulder’s John Meerts doesn’t mind an excuse to get out of the house, even if it is to see a doctor.
Last week, however, Meerts, 69, was more than happy to stay at home and use the technology of telemedicine for a post-operation checkup on his rotator cuff.
“It was just as good as being there and frankly, it saves me time and effort,” said Meerts, who had his telemedicine appointment with Dr. Eric McCarty, chief of sports medicine at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. “I could see him, he could see me and we could converse without any problems.
“I think, for all intents and purposes, it was the same as being there. One could even say it might be a little bit better because I didn’t have to drive down there. I didn’t have to expose myself potentially to the (new coronavirus) and it was all done in about 10 minutes.”
Worldwide concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus have forced McCarty and many other doctors to use telemedicine, but what has become a necessity in the past few weeks could become a convenient tool used long after the pandemic is over.
“I think it’s really fascinating that this virus is going to change a lot of how we do medicine,” McCarty said. “This is one thing that will be positive and will help the health systems in general.”
McCarty and Dr. Chris Madden, a provider at Longs Peak Family Practice and Sports Medicine in Longmont, both said they rarely used telemedicine (also called telehealth) before the coronavirus pandemic began. McCarty, however, saw 20 patients through telemedicine one day last week, while Madden had 16 such appointments on a recent Saturday.
Many patients do not want to come to the office during the pandemic, but still need medical care for various reasons, such as post-op checkups, injury consultations, concussion follow-ups, or cold symptoms. Telehealth provides that care.
“Basically, it’s going to save the world at the moment,” Madden said. “(Patients) love it so far. There are a number of them that would embrace that in the future for appointments that would qualify for it.”
Boulder’s Dave Stone, 52, had a post-op appointment with McCarty last week, a virtual meeting that lasted nearly 25 minutes.
“I had better access to him … than I ever had with any orthopedic surgeon I’ve worked with in the past,” said Stone, who has had 22 broken bones and two soft tissue surgeries. “I would highly recommend (telehealth), especially if it was more convenient for the medical facility and the doctors involved and you might be more apt to get an appointment at your choosing or convenience.”
Littleton’s Brad Cooney, 31, had a pre-surgery consultation with McCarty. While McCarty couldn’t physically test Cooney’s shoulder, he could test it virtually.
“I don’t think it was 100% as effective as being face to face, but I think from an initial consult, it was very helpful and very beneficial,” Cooney said. “I think for a situation like this, it was a perfect use of telemedicine.”
There are certain medical issues that will always require in-person appointments, but doctors are finding there is a lot that can be done without having to bring a patient into the office.
Dr. Sherrie Ballantine-Talmadge is a concussion specialist at CU Sports Medicine and has been able to use telemedicine technology to check the eyes of her patients and do certain neurological tests through the screen.
“Concussion folks already struggle with mental health … really as a consequence, a lot of times, to their concussion,” she said. “So it’s been incredibly encouraging over the last week to see how we can help these people and for me to physically see their faces and to see how happy they are that they don’t have to stop with their rehab.
“The ability to partner with our patients and help them to stay mentally healthy and physically healthy right now is really a great tool to have.”
While telemedicine has proven to be efficient for the patients, who can turn a lengthy process of going to the doctor into a fairly quick process, the doctors say they are still working out some kinks.
“It’s probably more efficient for the patient than it is for the physician,” McCarty said. “I think once we get the hang of it, it’s going to really help save some visits for patients.
“This is going to change how we do a lot of medicine and what we do. In the future, it’s like, ‘Hey, that actually worked; we can do more of that.’”
Madden said he believes there is a “big percentage” of medicine that can be done through telehealth.
“I could see a doctor integrating it into care very seamlessly at this point with the technology that’s there,” he said. “I don’t know that seeing (patients) on telehealth is going to help me be any less busy than seeing them here in person, but I think it’s a tremendous service for patients.”
Madden said insurance companies will need to make some adjustments before telehealth will become a viable tool in the future – after the threat of the coronavirus subsides.
Previously, insurance companies have offered variable reimbursements to doctors for telehealth, and some don’t cover it at all.
“It’s about helping people, but you’ve also got to get paid for it or else you’re not going to be here to help people,” Madden said. “Anytime you have something that is variably reimbursed across payers, takes about the same amount of time and pays significantly less than a normal visit does, from a reimbursement standpoint, it’s a non-viable technology.”
The government and some payers have adjusted their policies during this pandemic, which makes it a beneficial resource for both physicians and patients.
“If the payers reduce or choose not to cover telehealth when we leave this emergency, it could, to some degree, kill or limit telehealth, unless we come up with options that we can bill for directly,” Madden said. “Payers will have to offer a fair reimbursement that’s comparable to an office visit.”
Doctors are hoping that will be the case, because what has been a seldom-used technology has proven to be not only essential right now, but highly valuable for the future.
“The world is going to look very differently after this and I very much think that telehealth has a place in the future of medicine,” Madden said.
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