COVID-19 Spotlights Need for Virtual Services, Including Teleradiology

March 19, 2020

Remote services and providers can help control the spread of infection.

Discussing the importance of virtual care and telehealth services, including teleradiology, is nothing new. Previously, many of these conversations fell into the bucket of “want to have” rather than “need to have,” especially, for those of us fortunate to have top-tier medical facilities nearby. Today, as COVID-19 changes the way many of us think about daily life, the ability to access a medical professional or service virtually suddenly seems quite urgent. Traditional concepts of geography (which often affected patients in rural areas the most) may now apply to as short of a distance as one subway ride.

New Guidelines for Telehealth

A patient that is a regular visitor to their physician’s office or their local hospital is often a patient who is also most at risk of developing a serious COVID-19 infection. Physicians should consider utilizing telehealth for these patients to reduce their time spent in public. While there is a stereotype that older patients may not be as technologically savvy, several studies have shown that Boomers are, in fact, very much in favor of digital health and are interested in using technology to facilitate reminders, after-hours visits, daily support, classes, and appointment follow-ups.

On Monday of this week, the Trump administration announced the expansion of telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries. This includes paying doctors and facilities for telehealth services in replacement of traditional hospital visits, medical practice visits, and even mental health care in some cases.

“This action is a part of our broader effort to ensure that government requirements, [and] rules and regulations don’t get in the way of patient care during an emergency,” said Seema Verma in a press conference at the White House on Tuesday. “These services can be provided in a variety of settings, including nursing homes, hospital outpatient departments, and more.”

Traditionally, HIPAA has acted as a complex barrier when it came to telehealth. However, the new guidelines have broken down many of these same barriers, allowing greater flexibility for physicians to use their own phones and conduct virtual “check-ins” of patients with high-risk conditions. Guidelines still urge that practitioners avoid communications on social media applications to reduce privacy concerns.

Many facilities have already had success with telehealth programs. At WakeMed Health and Hospitals in North Carolina, Valerie Barlow, Vice President of Clinical and Support Services said, “61 percent of patients who used WakeMed Virtual Urgent Care and completed the survey would have gone to an urgent care facility had they not had access to this telemedicine option, (and) 14 percent of patients who used virtual care and completed the survey would have gone to an emergency room had they not had access to the service.”

Virtual services provide a solution to reducing physician burnout and keeping only the most at-risk patients in hospitals.

Virtual solutions can also offer physicians a method of educational collaboration. In the UK, The British Society of Thoracic Imaging (BSTI), in conjunction with Cimar UK’s Imaging Cloud Technology (cimar.co.uk), have designed a global online portal to upload and refer imaging of patients with either confirmed or suspected COVID-19. All cases are automatically anonymized by CIMAR at the point of upload. Access is public, and the platform already has over 5,000 views despite just being live for a few days.

Access to healthcare needs to be virtual more than ever. Facilities and providers must be open to accepting creative solutions, and technology vendors should work together to enable these new and exciting workflows. Together, we can all work to offset the burden on our healthcare system during this challenging time.