The COVID-19 crisis has changed the practice of medicine in many ways and ushered in the age of virtual visits. Recently, we set up a virtual visit with a 91-year-old patient, who would be at very high risk for complications from COVID-19 if he were exposed to it. The visit was done during the height of the pandemic when we really were trying to keep patients away from our medical facilities. Through video, we were able to evaluate his condition, diagnose him, and start a treatment plan for a difficult rash he was experiencing. He was able to receive safe and appropriate care, in a timely fashion, and all from the comfort of his home.
Another patient of mine is an 88-year-old diabetic who had two wounds on his leg that were not healing. He had some pain and redness and was appropriately concerned. I reached out by phone, but I really wanted to get a look at his leg. I started to ask delicately if he had a way to do a video visit with me when he promptly responded that he had just recently done a “Zoom visit” with another doctor. After a couple minutes of walking him through making the connection, I was looking at his right leg, making an accurate diagnosis and prescribing medication. This was an incredibly fulfilling interaction for me, and the patient was extremely appreciative.
In the medical community we have talked about virtual care for many years, but the COVID-19 crisis catapulted it forward as an excellent tool for providing care without raising the risk of infection. In March and April, when it became a high-risk proposition to see your doctor in person, virtual visits quickly provided an excellent alternative. Even now, the American Medical Association is touting the use of telemedicine and remote care services, calling them “critical to the safe management of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also ensuring uninterrupted care for 100 million Americans with chronic conditions.”
Many in the industry have thought of virtual visits as a tool for the young and technologically savvy. While our younger patients are more accustomed to this technology, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that those who stand to benefit most may be our elder patients. Elders in our community face the highest risk of potential exposure to infectious disease such as COVID-19 and the seasonal flu. In the winter months, our elder patients also have the highest risk of falling and injuring themselves as they come in and out of our practices.
Making virtual care available, less intimidating and easy to use will help ensure that our patients get the care they need in the safest format possible. Patients can help by being willing to learn, sharing their feedback with us so we can keep improving, and supporting legislation that enables virtual care development for all in our community.
Virtual care is here to stay. It will not replace all in-person doctor visits but will improve the ability to provide the best care to our patients when and where it is needed.
Paul Nemeskal is a doctor with the North Shore Physicians Group in Danvers. This column is part in a series from the Salem For All Ages task force.