Telehealth comes of age during pandemic

From left, Jarrett Nunez, Nicole Fontenot and Jonathan Kouts, all medical students at NYITCOM at A-State, perform a mock exam utilizing the “Rounder,” the college’s customized telemedicine equipment.

JONESBORO — The coronavirus pandemic has brought telemedicine into the mainstream of health care, providing a measure of safety to health care workers and physicians.

But at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University, first- and second-year medical students have been learning to utilize telemedicine technology from day one.

Now, the COVID-19 crisis has brought telemedicine, also called telehealth, to the forefront as doctors seek ways to interact with patients without exposing themselves to infection.

“When you have a pandemic, you want to keep those health care workers, the doctors and nurses, safe,” said Dr. Shane Speights, dean of NYITCOM at A-State.

“If you lose your physician, or your nurse, then who’s left to treat the patients?”

Telemedicine can further public health mitigation strategies during the pandemic by increasing social distancing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Telehealth services can be a safer option for health care professionals and patients by reducing potential infectious exposures.

While not every medical problem can be treated by telemedicine, many visits can be conducted virtually, even to the point of the doctor checking vital signs and examining conditions via the monitor.

Speights said the technology used in the monitors and telehealth stations at NYITCOM-Arkansas is cutting edge.

Telemedicine also can reduce the strain on health care systems by minimizing the surge of patient demand on facilities and reduce the use of PPE by health care providers.

“When I was at St. Bernards, they were very forward thinking with technology, but sometimes it was hard to get the doctors to adapt,” Speights said. “A lot of the doctors were not interested in it.”

He said doctors get used to a certain model of patient care, and sometimes they were not ready to change.

But Speights saw the potential for the use of telemedicine, and when the medical school curriculum was being constructed, he saw the value in educating the future doctors in the use of telemedicine.

“We were one of the few medical schools teaching the practice of telemedicine,” he said.

Initially, telemedicine was seen as a way to provide medical services to rural areas where specialists are not readily available.

While it was available pre-pandemic, telemeedicine was limited in usage. But the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled physicians to figure out how they can best use the technology to provide patients with care while practicing physical distancing, according to the American Medical Association website.

According to an April 29 article on the website, ama-assn.org, AMA experts have produced guides to telemedicine.

The Trump administration has worked with the AMA to expand Medicare coverage for services provided through telehealth and improving payment policies to include telemedicine visits.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have also implemented new policies to help patients who need controlled substances for pain relief or treatment for opioid-use disorder.

AMA experts and physicians on the front lines agree that the emergence of telehealth during the COVID-19 outbreak will result in it being more widely used than it was before the pandemic.

“There are going to be changes in the practice of medicine going forward based on all this use of telehealth. We are quite certain of that,” said Sandy Marks, the AMA’s senior assistant director for federal affairs. “We are definitely going to be pushing for some of these new policy flexibilities to remain in place.”

Not only have NYITCOM-Arkansas students already been introduced to telemedicine concepts, the medical school uses its telemedicine program to expand health care into rural areas.

There is also an on-campus telemedicine clinic being planned for returning students to use in the fall, Speights said.

“Part of our mission is to bring health care out into these rural communities, and we have our students rotating in our rural hospitals,” Speights said, adding that the goal is to train a generation of doctors who serve in the underserved areas of the region.

The campus telemedicine programs also serve students, and faculty physicians use telemedicine to interact with some of their patients as well.

“One thing about all this, it pushes us into an area in which we should have been using telemedicine before the pandemic,” Speights said.