Telehealth revolutionized doctor’s visits. Could a hybrid model bring post-pandemic convenience and equity?

As the pandemic raged out of control last March, hospitals and medical offices felt the same disruption as other industries. In-person visits were sharply curtailed, and operations were upended by a shift to promising, but largely unfamiliar technology.“I’ve been a doctor 32 years. And I never thought I’d be doing it,” said Dr. David Talenti, president-elect of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. Like many of his colleagues, Talenti was able to continue his northeastern Pennsylvania practice via telemedicine.

At first, it seemed like a blessing just to be able to connect with patients. And as the pandemic continued, doctors saw unforeseen benefits in the disruption. Patients no longer have to drive to clinics or waste time in a waiting room. Access has expanded for patients in rural and underserved communities — and there are fewer cancellations. 

Talenti, a gastroenterology specialist, also noticed that since they’re sitting in their living rooms, patients seem to feel more comfortable and communicative than before.

“I think they’re more honest with you,” he said. “They feel it is just so convenient, and they let their guard down,” Talenti said.

More than a year into the pandemic, PublicSource spoke to medical experts and community advocates who see benefits in a hybrid approach to post-pandemic health care that includes telemedicine as an option. But they also pointed out disparities in access, privacy concerns and limitations in treatment that show how hard it can be to care for a patient through a screen. 

 

Jen Waleski, a physician assistant at the Student Health Service Center at the University of Pittsburgh, sees many benefits in telemedicine but also feels a loss of personal connection and rapport with her patients. And losing the “laying on of hands” during an exam means she feels a need to be more vigilant in evaluating the student’s history.

Overall, she saw the transition to telemedicine as “pretty seamless” in an unprecedented time. Despite the challenges, telemedicine is an option that students seem to like. 

But like anything that relies on an internet connection, the shift to telemedicine has highlighted the digital divide.

Patients lacking consistent access to the internet won’t benefit from potential convenience, and it’s a problem that disproportionately impacts communities of color, elderly patients and patients in rural areas. While telemedicine could expand access, these groups are the same ones that might already face barriers to accessing health care.

(Photo via Unsplash)

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Telehealth revolutionized doctor’s visits. Could a hybrid model bring post-pandemic convenience and equity?

 

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