By Tobe Fisch, M.D.
In the early days of medicine, physicians primarily made house calls, which enabled sick patients to stay home, and also provided the doctors a glimpse into their patients’ lives.
Today, telemedicine is emerging as the modern-day alternative to the house call, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, the adoption of telemedicine for a wide range of care is accelerating. Telemedicine programs are also commonly referred to as virtual visits or telehealth.
Penn Medicine Princeton Health is offering current patients telemedicine visits for a variety of services, including coronavirus screenings, management of acute and chronic medical problems, behavioral healthcare, home care and hospice, and physical therapy.
What is telemedicine?
In today’s technology driven world, patients increasingly expect to engage with healthcare providers with the same level of convenience that they experience in other daily activities.
Telemedicine programs offer that convenience to patients and their families by using teleconference technology to assess and monitor a person’s health outside of the hospital or doctor’s office.
There are many benefits to a virtual doctor visit, including reduced wait times and rapid assessment of acute problems. Seeing patients in their own home environments can also enhance the sense of connection between doctor and patient, even though they are not in the same location.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine visits have enabled patients to access care from the safety of their own homes. Avoiding an interruption in care facilitates better management of ongoing chronic conditions, rather than having a gap in care with patients not coming into the office. As the region moves gradually out of stay-at-home mode, telemedicine visits can continue to be useful in minimizing a rush of patients needing to come back to the office right away.
What type of technology do I need?
Patients do not need to be very tech savvy to access telemedicine services. In fact, using telemedicine is no more complicated than placing an order on Amazon or streaming a movie on Netflix.
With an internet connection and a few simple steps, patients can download an application to their smartphone or computer and, using a specific ID number, join a videoconference with the physician.
For patients who are not able to connect to the internet or video, physicians can also conduct a visit over the telephone.
What kind of conditions can be treated through telemedicine?
Physicians can accomplish a lot through a virtual visit, especially a video visit. They can see how patients are coping with chronic conditions while at home, discuss any medications that need to be renewed, consider home health needs, and review any issues that have come up since the most recent visit.
Physicians can also assess a wide variety of acute issues, including respiratory symptoms that could be associated with COVID-19. An initial visit via telemedicine can help determine whether further testing or an urgent in-person evaluation are needed in a setting like the emergency room. Telemedicine visits can even be useful for reviewing preventive care. Any needed prescriptions for routine screenings like a colonoscopy or a mammogram can be prepared for when preventive testing resumes in the community.
Behavioral healthcare is especially well-suited for telemedicine visits, for patients with ongoing mental health issues or acute anxiety related to these uncertain times.
Even types of care that are traditionally hands-on, such as physical therapy for conditions including lower back and neck pain or sprains and strains, can be delivered to some extent through a virtual visit. The therapist uses telemedicine to lead the patient through a series of exercises using a live demonstration.
How do I prepare for a virtual visit?
Preparing for a virtual visit is similar to preparing for an in-office visit. Prior to the visit, create a prioritized list of items and questions you want to be sure to address with the doctor.
If possible, measure your blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and weight in advance, and have the numbers ready. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the technology before your appointment, check your Internet connection and review instructions you will likely be provided when you schedule the visit.
Also, think carefully about the setting for your visit. Pick a comfortable area that is quiet and well lit so the doctor can see and hear you well and vice versa. Try your best to check in a little early to avoid any technical issues that might delay the start of your visit.
Are in-person visits available during COVID-19?
In-person visits for some types of evaluations are still available, but during the COVID-19 pandemic it is recommended you call your doctor first to determine whether an in-person visit is necessary.
Keep in mind, however, that it is safer to visit the doctor’s office for an urgent medical issue than to ignore it because of concerns about the coronavirus and hope it goes away.
Finally, if you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, or have another medical emergency, call 911 and seek immediate medical care.
As the effects of COVID-19 are felt throughout Central Jersey, Penn Medicine Princeton Health remains committed to providing high-quality, comprehensive care to the community 24/7.
Tobe Fisch, M.D., is board certified in internal medicine and clinical informatics. She is the Chief Medical Information Officer at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.