COVID-19 taught us many things, some of which historians will still be sorting out for the next century. If there was one main takeaway, though, it was this: we can’t always rely on the standard healthcare system.
Hospitals were overrun. Doctors and nurses got reassigned. Children went without scheduled vaccinations. Crowded emergency rooms and ICUs made routine visits a nightmare when they were even possible.
This caused a sea change in healthcare. Clinics wanting to keep people out set up long-anticipated telehealth systems. Patients wanting to avoid the plague finally made the jump to annoying and sometimes cumbersome online portals. Little by little, we worked it out.
Now that things have calmed down a little, it has become clear that online doctor visits are here to stay. As telemedicine becomes the norm, many Americans have adopted it as a way to access healthcare appointments over the internet. Using only their phones or computers, they can now meet with doctors, nurses, specialists and psychiatrists. Hooray for the future!
So just what is happening in telemedicine, and where will it take us next? Let’s explore.
Telemedicine: Not as New as You Might Think
More than a hundred years ago, radio magnate Hugo Gernsback predicted the first version of telemedicine. True, his vision included remote-controlled robot arms as part of the patient visit, but the rest wasn’t too far off. The main ingredients were a doctor in one location, a patient in another, and a real-time viewscreen between.
So, essentially, Zoom.
While Gernsback might not have gotten the online doctor exactly right, he still alerted the public to the possibilities. It took us another century to get there, sure. Nevertheless, today, we have the freedom to visit doctors right from home.
Types of Telehealth
Today, you can visit an online doctor in almost any department. That includes mental and physical health, specialists to pharmacists, and beyond. Some of the main types of telehealth include:
- Primary care visits: These appointments are between the patient and the physician who oversees their general health. This doctor or nurse practitioner provides general advice and diagnoses illnesses. They refer the patient to specialists and decipher test results. They assign physical therapy routines and prescribe medications. Often, all members of a family will have the same doctor.
- Specialist visits: Assuming you don’t need a lab test or imagine, specialists can often meet over Zoom or even the phone. They offer a deep understanding of parts of the body and specific diseases. They can help track patient progress and monitor metrics through RPM, or remote patient monitoring. This type of online doctor is also available in their office when needed.
- Pharmacy technicians: The advent of mail-order pharmacies and the ability to get meds at home was a major change in healthcare. Because of this, many people need to meet with pharmacists about their medications. If your online doctor can’t or won’t explain the prescriptions to you, a pharmacy tech can do so. During a short visit, they can fill you in on how to take the meds, contraindications, and possible side effects.
- Psychiatrists and counselors: Increasingly, we recognize mental healthcare providers as a critical arm of the medical community as a whole. Without mental health, physical wellness counts for little. Access to quality mental health services keeps our streets safer, our families happier and our schools more effective. If you need mental health, don’t wait to ask your online doctor about the possibilities.
Survey Trends Are Clear: Telemedicine Is Here to Stay
It’s not just that having an online doctor is convenient. It has become necessary to many Americans. According to surveys from the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, advisor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, telehealth is here to stay.
“A 2020 study found that telehealth use during the initial COVID-19 peak (March to April 2020) increased from less than 1 percent of visits to as much as 80 percent in places where the pandemic prevalence was high,” says a recent report. Another “found that Medicare telehealth utilization increased 63-fold between 2019 and 2020.”
Tellingly, telemedicine proved especially important to underserved groups: “The highest rates of telehealth visits were among those with Medicaid (29.3%) and Medicare (27.4%), Black individuals (26.8%), and those earning less than $25,000 (26.7%).”
Sadly, though, that doesn’t mean that online doctor visits are equitable yet. To get there, we’re going to have to do a lot more work.
Equity in the Telehealth Space
Unfortunately, healthcare has not historically been an equitable system. Underserved communities can expect poorer outcomes for the same healthcare issues than their more privileged counterparts. More specifically, that means:
- Higher rates of disease and mortality across age groups
- More difficult pregnancies with poorer outcomes for mother and child
- More severe illness and disease
- Higher costs in the forms of not just healthcare, but transportation and opportunity cost as well
- Lack of access to health insurance and basic care
This equity trickles down to telehealth as well. Underserved communities are less likely to have access to:
- The internet
- Smartphones and laptops
- Local healthcare providers
- Providers who can meet with them in their language
- Insurance to pay for it all
This especially impacts rural Americans, communities of color, and immigrants. To fully realize the future of telehealth, we need to solve these issues. That means providing more equitable healthcare, cheaper options, and better access. Luckily, we’re getting there.
Telemedicine for All
They might not be quite as cool as Gernsback’s “teledactyl,” but today’s online healthcare options are still pretty amazing. They have begun to open up healthcare to underserved communities and people with limited income and transportation options. Overall, telemedicine has made a healthier world possible.
As the population grows and physical healthcare settings become ever more crowded, its importance only increases. Don’t wait to find an online doctor, set up a portal, and start scheduling appointments today. The future awaits.