“Going to the doctor” has taken on a whole new meaning with the rise of telemedicine — the practice of providing care for patients remotely through technology.
Some patients have turned to telemedicine to communicate with their health care providers without leaving their homes as concerns surrounding COVID-19 increase.
Kerry Palakanis has been a family nurse practitioner for over 30 years and joined the Intermountain Healthcare team almost two years ago. Originally from a small town on the East Coast, Palakanis spent the last decade spearheading the advancement of telemedicine in rural, underserved areas. Her expertise has brought additional value to Intermountain’s telemedicine systems, especially in light of COVID-19.
“This pandemic has catapulted telemedicine decades beyond where we anticipated it would be,” Palakanis said. “It created a requirement to have alternate means of providing care so we don’t increase exposure risk.”
Telemedicine has been around for over 30 years, but has made enormous strides in the last decade and especially the last few months. Prior to COVID-19, health care providers at Intermountain were doing 200–300 video visits with their patients per month. In April 2020 alone, video visits skyrocketed to 52,000, according to Palakanis.
“People have become more comfortable with video visits, so we’ve seen enrollment numbers go up,” Palakanis said.
In an age where technology is an integral part of daily life, the transition from in-person visits to telecommunication has been relatively easy and is even preferred by some people.
Will remote healthcare become the norm?
Kayleena Hendrickson is a fifth-grade elementary school teacher from Herriman, Utah. She said she enjoys the convenience of scheduling an appointment through a call and not having to leave her home to meet with her therapist.
“It’s been awesome. I don’t have to drive anywhere,” Hendrickson said. “I even asked one of my therapists if after quarantine is over, we could continue meeting over Zoom.”
Hendrickson has also shifted to online appointments with her obstetrician and said meeting through a computer screen didn’t feel much different than meeting in person.
“He just asked me a list of questions, told me what prescriptions I needed to pick up and gave me an order to get my blood drawn, do a urine test and other necessary lab work,” Hendrickson said. “It felt like a normal doctor’s appointment. In fact, he scheduled all my appointments out until November as virtual meetings.”
Katia Borden, from Holladay, Utah, has been receiving care through telemedicine since March. The concept was new to her, but she said the transition has been a great experience.
“It was helpful because the thought of going into the office is intimidating, especially with all the people in the waiting room and the risk of being exposed to germs,” Borden said. “It’s also nice because you don’t have to wait. You can just call and check in.”
Borden communicates with her health care providers on a weekly basis through FaceTime. In some ways, she said it has been “less intimidating” to speak through a screen.
“It’s nice to just have a conversation over the phone,” Borden said. “It’s been a little easier to talk and be more open. I think it’s a great concept that’s going to be something we use more in the future.”
Borden has also met with her children’s doctors remotely. Recently, her daughter completed a physical exam through a video conferencing app called Vidyo.
According to Palakanis, most of a physical exam is done by reviewing the patient’s health history and going through a set of questions and answers. When it comes to examining the patient’s body, technology allows doctors to look at the skin and into the ears and mouths of patients.
“Even with a simple cell phone you can look at lesions and rashes. You can have a patient hold the phone up to their mouth and see the back of their throat,” Palakanis said.
Overcoming hurdles with telemedicine
The cost of building the infrastructure for telemedicine can be expensive, as can training health care providers and patients in effectively using it. For example, proper use includes abiding by HIPAA guidelines in protecting the personal health information of patients.
“Frequently in the past, we had patients say, ‘Why can’t I just Skype or FaceTime you?’ The answer to that is, it doesn’t provide that protection of personal health information,” Palakanis said.
There is now a national waiver in place that allows the use of non-HIPAA compliant platforms for communication. Intermountain Healthcare, however, continues to use traditional HIPAA compliant platforms that are currently built into the infrastructure.
While many people find comfort and ease in using telemedicine, Palakanis said there is generally a learning process and sometimes a hesitancy in using telemedicine for first-time patients.
“It’s a matter of finding comfort and being accustomed to a different means of communication,” Palakanis said. “But we find that once a patient or health care provider uses telemedicine, they embrace it wholeheartedly and frequently want to use it more.”