The pandemic has forced health professionals and patients alike to dig deeper into telemedicine – something they may have opposed not so long ago.

A resistance area can focus on patients who believe they are not getting the same amount of time or attention from their doctor when communicating over the phone or computer as they would in person. However, research presented at the American College of Surgeons’ 2020 Virtual Clinical Convention last week found that this is not the case with surgical follow-up exams. The researchers learned that surgical patients who had virtual follow-up exams spent as much time with their surgeon or other team members as those who went to the office or the clinic.

Study results

The study included more than 400 patients who had either their appendix or gallbladder removed with minimally invasive surgery. Upon discharge, patients were given either face-to-face or telemedical follow-up appointments. The researchers wanted to know whether patients with telemedicine appointments spent as much time with the provider as patients who went to the office or the clinic.

Not all patients went to their follow-up visits – only 64%. “Sometimes patients are so well after minimally invasive surgery that about 30% of these patients do not show up for a post-operative visit,” said Dr. Caroline Reinke in a press release. Dr. Reinke is the study’s lead author and Associate Professor of Surgery at Atrium Health in Charlotte, NC

The researchers rated the patients who kept their appointments. They found that patients who had face-to-face appointments spent more time on the appointment (58 minutes), but much of that time checking in, waiting in the waiting room, waiting again in the office, and talking to the member of the surgical team embraced and then discharged. Patients with virtual appointments only spent 19 minutes including waiting for the meeting to start.

Despite these large differences, there was no actual difference in personal experience between the groups. Face time with the surgical team averaged 8.3 minutes for the face-to-face visits and 8.2 minutes for the telemedicine visits.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the time patients spent with the member of the surgical team was the same, since one of the main problems with virtual visits is that patients feel disconnected and there isn’t that much value in it,” said Dr. Said Reinke.

Telehealth myths

Patients may be reluctant to take the telemedicine route due to some myths associated with remote health care. Here are some common telemedicine myths:

It hasn’t been a way of providing health care long enough, so it’s not proven.

The state of Nebraska appears to have been at the forefront of telehealth when telepsychiatry was first used there in 1959. And doctors have long used the phone to speak to patients they call with concerns, and even call or fax prescriptions at pharmacies as needed. In the 1990s, doctors began to understand how useful the Internet can be for reaching patients.

If I live near my doctor / hospital / clinic, I don’t need telehealth.

It is true that telehealth is a boon to people who live too far from a doctor. However, this type of health care is not limited to them. You could live just around the corner from the office, but if you have a telemedicine appointment you can stay at home or at work so your day isn’t disrupted. You could even be traveling and answering the call when you are out of town.

There are many reasons why you may not want or be able to leave your home. The weather might be too harsh, you might take care of someone you can’t leave alone, or you might feel too lousy to venture out.

Doctors can’t properly examine me when I’m out of the office.

While it’s true that your doctor can’t physically touch you during a telemedicine appointment, a lot of learning about a patient comes from careful questions. If the call is video, the doctor can view you and make assessments along with the questions. Another option is to email photos of a rash or unusual spot on your skin, for example, and then speak to the doctor over the phone.

By the time you have a telemedicine appointment and need to schedule a face-to-face appointment, you’ve already discussed a lot of information your doctor needs, which may make your appointment shorter and more efficient.

The take away

Not every doctor’s appointment can be done virtually, but many appointments can. They can be used for triage (do I really have to go to the office, the clinic or the emergency room?), For diagnosis and, if necessary, for follow-up care.

If you’re looking to dig into telemedicine, speak to your doctor to see what the office or clinic has to offer. Sometimes “going to a doctor” means simply going to your computer or picking up your phone.

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