While the COVID-19 pandemic most certainly is the top healthcare story of 2020, the rise of telemedicine is not far behind.
As the nation hunkered down with the stateside arrival of the pandemic in March, trips outside the home became more infrequent, yet necessities remained. With many leery of visits to doctor’s offices with the many unknowns of the virus in the early spring, practices began shifting to telehealth appointments. A CDC report notes that, unsurprisingly, telemedicine visits were up 154%, comparing the last week of March 2020 with that same week a year earlier. An even more eye-opening statistic, shared by U.S. News & World Report, estimates that the nation is on track to log more than 1 billion virtual doctor visits by year’s end.
The county’s two hospital systems, Inova Loudoun and HCA’s StoneSprings Hospital in Aldie, have both offered telemedicine appointments throughout the pandemic, with StoneSprings CEO Nathan Vooys calling the rapid advancement of the technology “transformational” for the healthcare industry. It’s a tool adopted all the way down the chain, even to small, local medical practices.
Telemedicine appears to be a practice that’s here to stay, even as stay-at-home restrictions have loosened, or COVID fatigue has set in. Dr. Degha Fongod opened her Delight Medical & Aesthetics practice in Ashburn in 2018. At her opening, she already had the software that came with telemedicine capabilities, but didn’t find herself using it all that much until this year.
When COVID hit, Fongod let the social media world know she was available for cash-for-service telehealth appointments. She soon found herself fielding calls, messages and telehealth appointments from all over the U.S. Her first telehealth patient was a flight attendant in Florida who, at the early stages of COVID’s U.S. arrival, was having a hard time finding a physician who would see her, or at least help her to get tested. Fongod was able to contact the state’s health department, and soon found herself connecting dots and coordinating care for slews of patients throughout the nation in similar situations. Some could not get in to see their physicians, who were quickly having to learn the intricacies of telehealth on the fly, or who still did not have the technological capabilities to see their patients in that medium.
In the past few months, the telehealth demands have waned as more companies have cropped up, Fongod said. But, at the same time, the aesthetics side of her business has begun picking up again as patients begin to feel more comfortable coming in for office visits. But Fongod said she plans to stick with telehealth appointments to engage with patients who do not want to, or are not able to, visit the office. It’s also led to an efficiency in her initial aesthetics consultations, with much of the initial information able to be captured via telehealth so a more complete treatment plan can be presented at a patient’s first physical visit.
“It’s become an integral part of my practice,” Fongod said of telemedicine.
At COVID’s onset, Dr. Jack Ayoub, of Virginia Obstetrics and Gynecology in Lansdowne, estimated that 30-40% of his appointments were conducted by telehealth. While that number has too dropped, now hovering around 10-15% of all appointments, Ayoub said the use of telehealth has led to some efficiencies for his office. Patients who are not comfortable coming into the office, or who want to avoid Northern Virginia’s notoriously congested roads, have used the service for follow-up appointments on chronic health issues or to go over lab results. Ayoub was also able to partner with a company that offered patients the opportunity to submit their own lab samples via a kit sent in the mail and have the results back within 72 hours for ailments like urinary tract infections. He would then go over those results via a telehealth appointment.
Ayoub, however, said he sees some drawbacks to telehealth. He said the use of such appointments is heavily dependent on the patients having adequate technology to be able to handle the video calls. He said around 30% of his telehealth appointments have needed to be rescheduled because patients did not have the proper capabilities to handle the calls. He is also worried that in the future the rise of telemedicine could lead to some healthcare providers not needing as much staff, something he as a small business owner is fearful of for smaller practices much like his own.
Drawbacks aside, he and other medical providers said they plan to keep the technology in their toolkits in 2021, even when COVID is in the rearview mirror.