When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe earlier this year the worldwide healthcare industry had to quickly evolve to meet the needs of COVID-19 patients, potential COVID-19 patients, and all other healthcare patients simultaneously. When hospitals and healthcare facilities found themselves flooded with Covid patients they turned to telemedicine, leading to telemedicine becoming a necessary tool to prevent the virus’s spread while prioritizing the safety of patients and providers.

“Telemedicine has been around us for more than 40 years. Back then, it had been used only to transmit images, videos, and other complex medical data. But in the last 5 years, it’s been growing in all health and IT sectors,” says Jonathan Linkous, the head of American Telemedicine Association.

Although telemedicine and virtual healthcare systems have been helpful methods to liberate doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers from the constraints and demands of in-person, clinic-centric models by allowing them to work from a variety of locations for decades now, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed healthcare into a new era of telemedicine. So, what does this technology-focused shift look like for the future of healthcare after COVID-19?

How Telemedicine is Reshaping Healthcare

Telemedicine is the broad term that refers to the virtual and remote delivery of healthcare through HIPAA-compliant technology. This often looks like patients connecting with their physicians through smartphones or tablets and is frequently available 24/7 in order to encourage patients to keep their distance from medical centers treating COVID-19 patients. When utilized correctly, telemedicine can service everyday health concerns, acute needs, and even chronic ones quickly and accurately.

Telemedicine has been a modern healthcare tool for decades, but has gained new prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a drastic increase in patients requiring remote healthcare. Alternatives to in-person medical care grew in demand globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result the future of healthcare is forever changed. 

The University of Pennsylvania Medical Center (UPMC) saw a surge in telemedicine appointments since the start of COVID-19. UPMC Pinnacle saw an 820% increase in telemedicine appointments in just one week and the total telemedicine visits conducted by UPMC went from 250 per day in early March of 2020 to 9,500 per day by mid-April, a 3,700% increase.

Robert Bart, MD, chief medical information officer at UPMC, says that in response to this surge of telemedicine users they have rapidly expanded the number of providers (primary care and specialty physicians) available to offer care virtually. “We’re also recognizing that many of our health care providers may be potentially quarantined or may be COVID-19 positive, and telemedicine enables them to deliver care from their homes. We have been focused on making sure doctors have the appropriate technology at home,” Bart said.

UPMC is also leveraging telemedicine technology through their Tele-Triage Program in which those who call 911 about their COVID-19 symptoms can be connected virtually with doctors. Telemedicine has proven to be a crucial tool in supporting the effort to keep those with mild symptoms and who don’t need to go to the hospital at home, while still receiving the support they need as they combat COVID-19.

Telehealth appointmentZekelia Rembert is reviewing patient charts at a virtual medical center at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. 

How Technology Keeps Patients Connected to their Families

One of the more emotionally complicated results of COVID-19 for patients being treated in hospitals and medical facilities — regardless of if they tested positive for COVID-19 or have other ailments — is the restriction on visitors.

Hospital visitation restrictions have proven necessary to slow the spread of the virus by limiting the amount of people potentially exposed to COVID-19 through visiting their loved ones. However, these limitations have expectedly made many patients feel lonely and frightened during their hospital stay. Enter: telecommunication, here to save the day.

The Center for Telehealth at the Medical University of South Carolina has been enthralled in the COVID-19 pandemic since early March. Their response to the virus has included screening people’s eligibility for testing, transitioning regular doctor’s appointments into telemedicine visits, and allowing nurses to monitor COVID-19 patients as they recover at home. 

Potentially even more crucially is their dedication to their patient’s emotional well-being. The center has combated the loneliness of being treated in a hospital without any visitation rights by setting patients up with visitation iPads to use to connect with their loved ones remotely, starting with patients in ICUs. The hospital already used iPads as aids during rounding and to obtain electronic signatures, but they also received a wave of donations when COVID-19 hit. The Center for Telehealth teamed with Information Solutions to reconfigure the devices so that patients could use FaceTime and other video conferencing apps to connect with their families.

Emily Warr, R.N., director of operations for the Center for Telehealth, understands the great emotional toll visitor restrictions place on patients and their loved ones. “Some of the more heartbreaking stories are around patients in the ICU who are critically ill and even close to death. We have a strict limitation of only two visitors even for those patients. That's tough if you’re a father of three and you’re dying,” she said. “So we started in ICUs for that reason – because most patients in ICUs don’t have their own devices, and they’re critically ill and have a real need for connection with their families.”

While hospital visit limitations have drastically increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Warr believes that telecommunication will stick around long after COVID-19 and the limitations have been lifted. “I would not be surprised if this virtual visitation option becomes the new norm because it’s really not a unique problem to COVID that some family members can't get in to see their loved ones while they’re in the hospital,” Warr said.

How Apps have Expanded Access to Healthcare

The use of mobile apps in the healthcare industry is not a new idea, but one that has certainly skyrocketed in the past 5 years and gained prominence since the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of telemedicine. In 2018 there were over 318,000 mobile healthcare apps available for patients and approximately 200 new healthcare apps are being built each day.

Healthcare apps have grown in popularity due to their undeniable convenience and consistent innovation. Because they offer patients immediate access to individualized care, it is no surprise that many patients are turning to apps for medical assistance at a time where in-person medical care can bring with it exposure to additional health risks.

Studies have shown that nearly 75% of doctors, ER, and urgent care visits could be conducted over the phone or through video conferencing software. Healthcare apps can save both patients and providers time and resources when they are utilized correctly, and in the age of COVID-19 they are an increasingly necessary resource that are here to stay.

How Healthcare Teams are Connecting from Home

During COVID-19, many employees who weren’t required to be in healthcare facilities like admitting teams, informatics teams, quality teams, finance and marketing teams, and clinical staff like doctors, nurses, therapists, and others, were required to work from home to reduce the amount of on-site staff. Those working on-site had to limit the number of in-person attendees in meetings. This has led to a drastic increase in Zoom and other video conferencing calls among healthcare providers.

When multidisciplinary healthcare meetings need to happen with a hybrid of on-site staff (bedside nurses, physicians, therapists) and off-site or off-unit employees (social workers, case managers, consulting teams, and managers), the Meeting Owl is a great way for those at home to know who is talking, see and hear everyone on-site, and be a part of the conversation. In many healthcare facilities, conference calls are just now turning to Zoom calls, and face to face meetings are better for collaboration.

Healthcare providers around the globe have been faced with the toughest task of their careers in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to massive strides in healthcare technology when the world needed them the most, the future of post-COVID-19 healthcare is rooted in telemedicine.

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