Telemedicine has emerged as an ‘invaluable tool’ during COVID-19

The MyChart app is one of the ways Mercy Medical in Cedar Rapids conducts its video visits. The hospital also does video visits with patients through FaceTime or Skype. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

As cases of COVID-19 increase in Iowa (particularly in Linn County, which, as of Monday morning, has the highest number of confirmed cases in the state at 71), hospitals are turning to telemedicine as a way to screen patients and care for more individuals while conserving personal protective equipment.

Telemedicine has been an “invaluable tool for screening people” during the pandemic, Dr. Tim Sagers of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids said. Telemedicine — also referred to as telehealth — allows patients to have remote appointments with their doctor, commonly through video.

“The goal in the health system when you have a viral pandemic like this is to keep people that don’t need to be in clinics and don’t need to be in the emergency room and don’t need to be in the hospital, you want to keep them out of those places,” Sagers told Little Village. “So it’s been a great tool to get eyes on a patient and make clinical decisions for how sick this person is, and then we can … forward them on to higher levels of care if need be.”

“[Using telemedicine] keeps them out of the ER, keeps them out of the clinics, keeps them out of urgent care, which means we can conserve PPE because every time we encounter a patient, we burn up PPE in one form or the other. So that’s another important kind of ancillary benefit of doing telemedicine.”

Last Thursday, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an emergency order that included a provision requiring insurance companies to pay health care providers the same rate for telemedicine visits as they pay for in-person visits. Earlier this month, Medicare expanded coverage for telemedicine in an effort to keep seniors home as they receive care for existing health problems or new concerns.

Due to the pandemic, Mercy Medical Center has expanded its use of telemedicine. All of the clinics, both primary care and specialty care, have the ability to do visits via video using MyChart, FaceTime or Skype. The hospital went from doing “a handful” of telemedicine visits prior to the pandemic to around 400 visits last Wednesday, Sagers said.

The video visit is similar to an in-person visit and it’s a “safe, efficient way to get health care, especially in the time of a pandemic,” Sagers said. He added patients shouldn’t be afraid to try it and that those who have used telemedicine like the technology.

“We can do a surprising amount of health care through telemedicine because a lot of the decisions we make as physicians and other providers are based on history and things patients tell us and the questions we ask, not necessarily the physical exam,” Sagers said. “We can rapidly evaluate people and screen them with telemedicine and then make further definitive care recommendations if we need to.”

But telemedicine isn’t only advantageous when it comes to physical health. Sagers brought up the benefits of telemedicine in regards to mental health, especially as people deal with depression and anxiety during the pandemic.

“As we move through this crisis, this is going to be fairly long-term. This is gonna be weeks to months, in my opinion,” he said. “There will be a lot of stress and anxiety. A lot of people are going to need to talk to a counselor or a provider about that, so the telemedicine will give us a whole new access point for this influx of what I assume will be stress and PTSD and all the other things that come from a crisis such as this.”

“I’ve said this when I’ve spoken at conferences and other things: the solutions for the American health care or mental health care crisis or the shortcomings we have in mental health care in this country — it will be answered by telemedicine,” Sagers added, “there’s no doubt in my mind.”

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