PICTURED: Dr. Neil Jorgensen interacts with a patient via a tele-video platform. Photo courtesy of Ventura County Health Care Agency Ambulatory Care

by Alex Wilson

The coronavirus pandemic is speeding adoption of new high-tech ways for doctors and patients to communicate, while eliminating the need for some patients to visit a medical office or hospital in person.

Those methods include “telemedicine” which can involve phone calls, Internet video chats and other types of virtual doctor visits, as well as seemingly old-fashioned house calls by doctors.

The use of telemedicine has been growing steadily in recent years. The trend has accelerated due to the crisis, thanks to added encouragement from medical providers, and reluctance by many patients to leave their homes.

Linking up doctors and patients

Dr. Theresa Cho, Ventura County Health Care Agency Ambulatory Care CEO, says they were in the process of developing a new telemedicine program when the crisis struck.

“We looked at it before, but there are lots of regulations around it. So it seemed a little more difficult at the time to get past those, and so we didn’t, unfortunately, set it up before COVID,” said Cho. “So that has really pushed us in that direction.”

After Ventura County Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin declared a shelter-in-place order on March 17, Ventura County Health Care Agency officials worked quickly to get the new telemedicine system up and running right away.

“And then we enhanced that by March 26 or so, by offering a tele-video platform that all of our doctors and other providers can use to reach out to their patients safely, while they are at home. So that allows us to send a link to their phone. They don’t need to download an app or do anything complex. They just click on the link and they’re able to see their physician and explain if they have any health concerns that the doctor needs to address,” said Cho.

In addition to using the system with computers and cell phones, patients can also arrange to have doctors call them on landline telephones.

Dr. Wallace Baker interacts with a patient remotely. Photo courtesy of Ventura County Health Care Agency Ambulatory Care

Cho says that there will always be circumstances when patients need treatment at a clinic or hospital for things like traumatic injuries and infections, but many other types of appointments are just as effective using telemedicine.

“We do want to bring in moms who are pregnant to make sure the baby is growing and is healthy, and we also bring in babies who need vaccines because we don’t want them to get sick,” said Cho. “Obviously that’s not something you can do over the phone or through a video, so in cases like that we do have to bring the patients in.”

Telemedicine: here to stay?

Cho says they’ve received positive feedback from both patients and doctors who have used their new telemedicine system. “The patients love it. In fact, I think they really enjoy being able to talk with their doctor without actually having to leave the house and figure out transportation and take the extra time,” said Cho.

“For the doctors it’s great because some of them can actually work from home. It allows them to deal with the things that everybody else is dealing with, like children at home or other family members who need help,” Cho continued. “We’re trying to stagger those schedules so some doctors are still in clinic for those acute needs, while others might be doing some of this work from home.

Cho says most people have adapted to the new technology quickly, and now nearly a quarter of their doctor visits are via telemedicine. She believes people will continue to use such services in high numbers even after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

“I definitely think this is something that’s here to stay,” said Cho. “We’re probably going to do a good percentage of your visits this way.”

The Heal app for smartphones makes it easy for patients to book an appointment with a healthcare provider. Photo courtesy of Heal

“A major wake-up call”

California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) Assistant Professor of Health Science Ronald Berkowsky teaches classes on topics including healthcare technology, and agrees that adoption of telemedicine is now accelerating due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re going to see drastic increases in telemedical visits, virtual visits, etc.,” said Berkowsky. “I think that the pandemic is going to be a major wake-up call. Now that we see that there is potential for a significant benefit to telemedicine, I think more and more people are going to want to hop on board, start using these technologies and investing in these technologies.”

But Berkowsky also says there are some potential pitfalls to such technological changes, including worries that some patients and health care providers will have a hard time navigating telemedicine systems.

“Even though there’s a need, they’re not necessarily going to be prepared to adopt these various different technologies. There are going to be issues with doctors and other healthcare providers who need additional training to use these technological platforms. There’s going to be a need to train patients.”

House calls

Interestingly enough, while telemedicine is enjoying notable growth, there is similarly a move towards treating patients in their homes rather than doctor offices. One reason for this increase is the growth of private companies that connect doctors to patients for telemedicine consultations as well as house calls.

One Internet-based company called Heal was founded by a doctor who formerly served as chief of medicine at Simi Valley Hospital and continues to practice medicine in Ventura County. Heal’s telemedicine services are already available to Ventura County residents and it hopes to soon offer house calls as it does in Los Angeles and other cities. The company’s services are covered by many major health insurers.

Dr. Renee Dua, Chief Medical Officer of Heal.

Heal Chief Medical Officer Dr. Renee Dua says it can be comforting for people to see a doctor in the privacy of their own home instead of in a hospital or office setting, and there are advantages for doctors, too.

“When I walk into somebody’s home, I’m able to see their behavior, their environment, the kind of food they eat, if they smoke, if they have pets. All these kinds of things answer a lot of questions without me even asking,” said Dua. “So many times, especially with this COVID outbreak, I find my patients have mental health issues, they’re depressed, they’re anxious, and me being there to take their hand and tell them everything is going to be all right is maybe more powerful than any medication I’m going to give them.”

“A massive shift”

Experts say the rapid technological changes happening in medicine due to the pandemic also have profound implications for other types of businesses, government agencies, schools and religious institutions.

CSUCI computer science professor Michael Soltys says organizations of all kinds have been adapting quickly to new technologies like Internet-based meeting programs.

Michael Soltys. Photo courtesy of CSU Channel Islands

“Everybody’s on Zoom and working from home if they can,” said Soltys “It’s a massive shift.”

He also says some people are finding benefits from taking care of business at home.

“Of course there’s the joke about sitting in your pajamas at a meeting comfortably in your home with a cup of coffee, but you do save time on commuting. Meetings online tend to be more targeted and condensed and better scripted. They’re often recorded so people are better prepared. They’re not just hanging out in a meeting room killing time,” said Soltys. “People are going to become accustomed to those benefits and will want to have them.”

Ventura County Health Care Agency: www.vchca.org

Heal: heal.com