Even before social distancing measures were put into place, the use of telehealth and telemedicine was expected to continue growing this year—but no one could have predicted just how much growth that would be. Both patients and providers alike have been slow to embrace virtual doctor visits, finding comfort or familiarity in in-person interactions. Now, out of necessity, telehealth services have proven themselves to be useful and valuable in minimizing non-urgent traffic within clinics and hospitals, allowing healthcare providers to practice social distancing as much as possible, and keeping vulnerable populations away from areas at higher risk for disease transmission.
For seniors and those who require in-home care, virtual doctor visits provide a way to shelter in place and to receive interim medical care and advice without putting themselves at greater risk. These benefits extend to in-home caregivers who would normally provide transportation to or sit in on these appointments. Where current proactive procedures at most medical facilities do not allow visitors or companions of any kind to accompany a patient inside, a virtual appointment allows a caregiver to be there with the individual as an advocate, as a partner in health, or simply for support.
Changes in Regulations for Telemedicine
Over a period of 2015 to 2018, use of telehealth services grew 624% and trended upward through 2019—though virtual services were generally supplemental, and corresponding billing and insurance matters came with challenges. Because of stay-at-home efforts, however, virtual medical visits were up by 50% in March, and analysts predict virtual visits will exceed 1 billion by the end of the year.
Many Medicare restrictions have been lifted in response to this rapid and urgent need to do things differently, meaning healthcare providers can now bill for telehealth services that they previously could not, and several commercial insurers are following suit.
Adapting to Telehealth and Virtual Visits
Though telehealth and telemedicine has been widely available for years, many individuals have experienced it for the first time over the past two months. Virtual doctor appointments certainly have their limitations—healthcare providers aren’t able to take x-rays or feel for swelling, for example—but for maintenance or ongoing check-ins, or for preliminary diagnoses, they provide a convenient alternative. For individuals who receive in-home care from a caregiver, a virtual visit allows members of their healthcare team to see the home environment—something that previously may not have been possible.
In-home caregivers may find themselves assisting technology-challenged seniors with the videoconferencing tools or applications necessary for effective telehealth services, or helping those with mobility issues or limited fine motor skills navigate their devices. While this rapid move to virtual healthcare has certainly come with a learning curve, it has also led to embracing new technological solutions and shown just how well everyone can adapt.
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