During the COVID-19 pandemic, more hospitals and doctors are promoting telemedicine, or telehealth. That typically means connecting with a physician or other medical personnel by phone or through an online video connection.
Medical facilities are trying to discourage people without COVID-19 symptoms or other risk factors from swamping medical facilities already busy with COVID patients. Or, from putting health care workers at greater risk by possibly simply spreading the virus.
Dr. Kim Cronsell is medical director for digital health at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. She says parents can find health advice for their kids on the Children’s website, and there’s a mobile app with a section dedicated to the coronavirus. But she says if parents are worried their child may have COVID-19, they can have a live video visit with a pediatrician day or night.
“Our providers can help determine if the children need a test, and if they need to be seen in person. And to also reiterate that you should not come to a physical location without calling first, so our staff is prepared to receive the patient,” Cronsell told WUWM.
Cronsell says Children’s has added 20 health care providers to the service as demand has grown this month. In the last two weeks, she says 1,000 people have enrolled in the online platform.
COVID-19 isn't the only health concern, of course. Cronsell says kids still get plenty of ear infections for example.
“There are cases where one can be concerned about an ear infection and can recommend watching and waiting for several days before starting antibiotic therapy. For a child in acute ear pain with a high fever, it is likely we need to examine the ear in person in order to be able to make that diagnosis with confidence," she explains.
She says the price of a video chat has been cut by 60% during the COVID crisis. Sometimes the remaining cost of $20 is covered by insurance.
Mike Anderes, chief innovation and digital officer for Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, notes the federal government has relaxed some restrictions on telemedicine. That includes making it more available to people on Medicare.
Anderes says Froedtert’s online clinicians have plenty of say-so over whether a patient needs to go to a care facility in person. But he says so far, most of the hospital’s digital medicine cases involve simple conditions or discussing chronic diseases.
He contends when it comes to some cancer patients, a virtual face-to-face during the COVID-19 pandemic is safer than a clinic visit.
“It’s not the same, you know, in terms of an experience. But in terms of the safety of somebody undergoing chemotherapy or immuno-compromised, it’s definitely a better value,” Anderes said.
When you go into a health care clinic, there’s a lot of equipment to help the provider make a diagnosis. Anderes says greater use of telemedicine doesn’t mean people need a lot more gear in their home.
“But then you can also easily understand how certain conditions would benefit from having a better connection with some of the data that comes from maybe a blood sugar meter or a thermometer or a blood pressure cuff. In many cases, if a person has one of those things at home, it’s as simple as them conveying to the clinical team what the reading was," Anderes said.
Anderes acknowledges it’s easier to access telemedicine with a smartphone, but he says the gap between those who have one and those who don’t is shrinking.
That’s true, says Eagan Kemp. He’s a health care policy advocate with the watchdog group Public Citizen. Kemp says telemedicine can be crucial during COVID-19, but the lack of a smartphone or the lack of a good connection can be problematic.
“So having sufficient broadband to have consistent video connection, because whether going to the doctor or talking to the doctor via Skype or Zoom or some other technology, it’s stressful enough. But if it’s cutting out or if you keep dropping the connection, it can be very frustrating for consumers,” Kemp said.
Kemp says he hopes governments step up and eliminate both rural and urban broadband problems, and that providers make sure online connections are secure from hacking. He says there’s money in the stimulus package moving through Congress this week to help improve telemedicine — a service which may become a bigger part of a lot of people’s health care even after the worst impact of the coronavirus.
During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.