As COVID-19 continues to infect thousands across the U.S., an unlikely hero has emerged, eager to change our current outlook on healthcare. 

Telehealth, or telemedicine/virtual health care, a development that has revolutionized patient care in several hospitals and outpatient facilities globally, refers to “visits” between patients and clinicians conducted over video or audio calls. The use of technology allows patients to consult their doctors in a convenient and efficient manner, avoiding the long waits and short discussions characteristic of in-person visits. Telemedicine is an essential tool for physicians and healthcare providers, and we should ensure that patients worldwide have full access to this resource in the years to come. 

Prior to the pandemic, a survey by Sage Growth Partners (SGP) revealed that only 25% of U.S. consumer respondents had utilized telehealth services. However, 59% reported that they are more likely to use telehealth services now, and 33% even said that they would leave their current physician for a provider that offered virtual health services. Today, Americans are more likely than ever to favor virtual medicine, and we should capitalize on this opportunity. 

Aside from routine doctor’s visits, telehealth services can have a remarkable impact on frontline workers and patients in rural communities. Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, a small facility in Lebanon, N.H., used telehealth services to assist health officials treating a patient suffering from paralysis, allowing doctors to have access to the patient’s vitals at any time. In such instances, and especially in light of the pandemic, clinicians in other areas can provide much-needed assistance and even help save patients in critical condition. 

Additionally, telehealth services can have a lasting beneficial effect on the livelihoods of vulnerable populations nationwide. According to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health system, telemedicine allows poor, elderly and special-needs patients to readily access primary care physicians and specialists that they would normally need to drive two hours to visit. If telemedicine can reduce the stress of a doctor’s visit for many vulnerable patients, it’s imperative that we increase awareness for its use. 

Historically, Medicare limited rural populations’ access to telehealth services. On March 6, President Donald Trump waived many Medicare telehealth restrictions preventing doctors from expanding virtual patient care. Pre-pandemic, doctors couldn’t provide telehealth services to a patient unless they came in for a visit in the past three years. Now, doctors can treat new and current patients and be reimbursed equally for both in-person and virtual visits, a common concern among healthcare officials practicing telemedicine in the past. 

Telemedicine over state lines, however, still remains a key issue. If patients are currently residing in a state outside of their permanent residence where their primary care physician does not have a medical license, doctors are unable to receive equal reimbursement for virtual visits. We must push for equal pay even in these instances of temporary relocation. Although it will be safer to conduct in-person visits when fewer COVID-19 cases begin to appear, we must strive for permanent implementation of these policies in our healthcare system to increase patient outreach nationwide.

Those against telemedicine often argue that the most vulnerable individuals in need of these services often lack the devices needed to engage in telehealth practices, such as smartphones or adequate broadband connectivity. Even those with cell phones often have restrictions preventing lengthy consultations with their healthcare providers. However, the work of organizations like TeleHealth Access for Seniors can help mitigate these discrepancies and allow vulnerable groups to receive these necessary devices for such care. If we can increase momentum for these initiatives by supporting and engaging with telehealth education programs such as those administered by University of Virginia Health, reaching out to elected officials, or even providing feedback on telehealth services to your primary care providers, we can provide enough easy-to-use devices to make telehealth services accessible for everyone.

Some patients also argue that virtual services aren’t as simple as advertised. For Jorge Cueto, setting up a virtual call for his parents, who are not fluent in English, is often more difficult than an in-person visit. He states, “I don’t think they would be willing [to] opt for telehealth if they weren’t required to do it.” Patient David Collins, though, loved the virtual setting for a quick 20-minute appointment, but noted that a physical checkup is something that simply can’t be done online. 

Although telehealth still faces some limitations, physicians like Dr. Donnie Aga of the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston agreed that it’s important to “have a balance” when planning an in-person versus a virtual visit. Despite mixed reviews, we must expand essential telemedicine services to help patients receive the care they rightfully deserve when an in-person visit is unnecessary, unsafe or too difficult to schedule. 

Although some appointments cannot be done virtually, telemedicine is an invaluable resource for patients and healthcare providers. Rather than waiting for hours in a doctor’s office for a routine consultation, telehealth services can save time and unnecessary stress for millions of Americans nationwide and provide vulnerable groups with adequate access to healthcare in a matter of minutes. Although telemedicine has its downsides and will certainly take time to perfect, it is an incredibly useful and necessary tool that can help usher in a new era of patient care. 

Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Virginia.