Telemedicine Has Taken Off. Here’s What It’s Already Doing—and How It Could Get Even Better

It began as a spark of interest in remote healthcare, gained momentum four years ago with the introduction of a suite of digital health services, then exploded when COVID-19 strained the system, making hospital and doctor visits anything but routine. Today, telemedicine—as a panel of experts at an Oct. 1 Weill Cornell Medicine webinar agreed—is no longer a futuristic idea but an immediate and vital tool for doctors and patients alike.

The webinar, “The New Frontline: Innovations in Emergency Medicine and Telehealth” highlighted front-line insights into telemedicine’s potential and practical tips for how to use it at a time when experts believe the healthcare platform is clearly here to stay. The panelists also shared their experiences using telemedicine, including some of its surprising benefits—and challenges.

While telemedicine at one time conjured images a patient FaceTiming with a doctor, it has permanently altered all of medicine, including urgent care. Webinar moderator Dr. Rahul Sharma, chairman of the institution’s Department of Emergency Medicine and a professor of clinical emergency medicine and of clinical population health sciences, and emergency physician-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Sharma also serves as executive director of the recently established Center for Virtual Care, where doctors learn the basics of telemedicine, “web-side manner” and how to conduct a patient examination electronically,

The panelists noted that patients who might once have piled into the emergency room can see a healthcare provider virtually, not only from home but at the hospital, often times leading to an expedited visit that bypasses the typical ER wait. If a patient who shuns the hospital learns during a virtual visit that he may have, for example, appendicitis,  he can be urged to get to the hospital—and the hospital can prepare for his arrival, said Dr. Peter Greenwald, an assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine and an emergency medicine physician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. 

Inside the hospital, patients can overcome isolation by using mobile equipment to participate in virtual visits with family members and care providers. When patients leave the hospital, they can take devices like oxygen saturation monitors home with them.

The goal is to flag symptoms that could drive patients back to the hospital, said panelist Dr. Heather Yeo, an associate professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine and a surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Yeo partnered with Cornell Tech to create a mobile app that reduces the risk of post-surgical complications by monitoring recovery using measures like step count and sleep, while also reminding patients, for example, to stay hydrated.

Virtual visits offer care providers a sense of the patient’s home environment and a chance to meet other members of the household. “It’s a meaningful connection,” Dr. Yeo said. Periodic virtual house calls also allow doctors to provide discrete chunks of information, Dr. Greenwald said, instead of “dumping a huge amount of information on them once a year.” 

For patients, the payoffs are immediate. They don’t have to drive and park or mingle in a crowded waiting room; one needs only a phone or laptop. To prepare for a virtual visit, Dr. Yeo advises compiling an up-to-date list of medications, finding a comfortable spot to interact, wearing loose-fitting clothes (in case there’s something the doctor needs to see) and maybe inviting a family member to join in. All age groups are using telemedicine—Dr. Yeo has one frequent telemedicine patient who is over 90.

Weill Cornell Medicine offers telemedicine services across all medical specialties. To book an appointment with a specialist or to get a second opinion, there’s and NYP Virtual Urgent Care. The institution is also expanding digital health services beyond telemedicine to improve the overall patient experience.

As fast as it’s moving, telemedicine is still grappling with regulatory questions and uncertainty surrounding fees and reimbursement. There are also the tough challenges of digital health literacy, equity and inclusion. Language, social, cultural and economic factors may also hinder patients’ use of the healthcare platform.

The panelists agree that these complications underscore the importance of tackling disparities in healthcare access and can spark opportunities to expand telemedicine’s reach.

“We are getting a lot of bright people to talk about it and put their heads together to develop solutions to ensure that the most people can benefit from telemedicine,” Dr. Greenwald said.

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