According to health experts, legislators and patients, out of all the headaches and heartaches that have come out of the last 12 months dealing with the pandemic, one emerging silver lining is telehealth.
For years, physicians have consulted with other physicians or specialists using teleconferencing. It’s an everyday event. But, physicians, for the most part, have not used teleconferencing or Zoom calls or other meeting applications to evaluate and converse with patients — that is, until COVID-19 hit.
“Because of the pandemic, we’ve seen such a dramatic increase in the availability and the use of telehealth,” said the President and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association Mary Mayhew, “The pandemic has served as a catalyst for dramatic change, even though we have had and had been promoting telehealth for well over a decade.”
The technology has been there but the healthcare industry, according to experts, was so “caught out in the weeds” worrying about the rules and regulations, that they slowed down the process of adopting the use of virtual meetings for patient care.
Once the pandemic struck, however, necessity dictated that many of these rules and restrictions at the federal level be suspended and people started to use telehealth much more extensively.
“Today, people are starting to get comfortable with the idea that it works and that it’s something that is really important and potentially a major tool going forward, expanding access for people in the healthcare system,” said Justin Senior, CEO of Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.
Hospitals and physicians are embracing it too.
“The healthcare community — the physicians, the hospitals — absolutely feel excited about how much the use and the availability of telehealth has skyrocketed and they are equally enthusiastic about efforts to sustain that engagement,” said Mayhew,
Millennium Physician Group (MPG) announced yesterday that in less than one year after launching its telehealth platform ‘MPG Connect,’ the group went from zero telehealth visits to over 210,000.
“We were very excited to have surpassed 200,000 telehealth visits since March 23, 2020,” announced Millennium Chief Innovation Officer Jeffrey Nelson. “That’s an average of more than 20,000 per month since the pandemic took hold.”
Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, MPG launched its telehealth service in just one week’s time, a feat that is virtually unheard of and is now conducting anywhere from 500 to more than 1,350 virtual visits a day across the state using its proprietary platform.
“MPG Connect is invaluable,” says Millennium Chief Medical Officer Alejandro Perez-Trepichio, MD. “Telehealth is the tool that allows us to strengthen the patient-provider relationship during this understandably concerning time while preserving our patients’ continuity of care.”
According to Mayhew, the pandemic created an opportunity for thousands of individuals to engage with their clinicians remotely and they were willing to do that in order to reduce any risk of exposure to COVID-19.
She said there has been a generational difference with younger individuals, teenagers, and individuals in their twenties who have wanted more engagement using telehealth because they’re much more comfortable using their phones to video conference with a physician.
But, older patients, even those in their 70s and 80s are embracing telehealth too, after the fears of the pandemic made them hesitant to leave their homes.
“Telehealth has helped to support greater comfort among older individuals who might otherwise have resisted using that technology,” Mayhew said.
Healthcare, as it emerges from the pandemic, will still face several challenges in providing access to care — transportation, workforce shortages and access to patients in rural areas far from major hospitals.
Mayhew said, “The availability of telehealth and the (newfound) consumer comfort in using telehealth is transformational in addressing those challenges.”
The need now, according to Senior, is to add some rules back into the mix, to ensure patients are receiving the same quality healthcare through telehealth they receive with in-office visits.
“There are many areas that fit neatly into telehealth, like mental health, substance abuse, and even dermatology. But there are other simple things that they can’t do by telehealth. So, it’s a matter of making sure that those judgments are good. It’s a matter of making sure that the technology is available enough, also,” Senior said.
It’s also a matter to be taken up by the Florida Legislature. A score of bills addressing everything from whether to allow the use of telehealth in routine visits for children to allowing pharmacies to offer telehealth services are before the lawmakers.
And the lawmakers seem to be on board.
“In terms of the various policy discussions that I have had with legislators, I am hearing repeatedly support for continuing the momentum that has been established around telehealth. There is significant support for telehealth amongst legislators,” Mayhew said.