The Impact of Social Distancing on Telemedicine Growth

As the COVID-19 pandemic marches on unabated, and countries gradually open up, patients continue to be very apprehensive about meeting their healthcare providers in person. Social distancing protocols are still in place and will most likely completely relax only until a vaccine is created and distributed.

A few months ago, telemedicine was seen as an innovative approach to providing care for patients in remote areas. It was perceived as an easy and quick way for clinicians to keep in touch with patients, without the need to travel to a clinic. Now, regulations and insurance coverage surrounding telemedicine have relaxed, allowing it to become more accessible, even in fields like occupational, physical, and speech therapies. Today, if a patient goes into a healthcare setting for an appointment, there will be barriers to human interaction in place with masks and other PPE, as well as distancing between the provider and patient. Above all, there is an increased risk of exposure to the virus because of close proximity in waiting rooms to others who may not have been tested.

Telemedicine removes these barriers and allows a provider’s uncovered face to be seen, allowing for a more genuine human connection with the patient. This makes for improved patient safety and experience, as well as a better patient-provider relationship.

Let’s take a deeper look into the delivery of maternal care with today’s social distancing protocols. As of January 2019, only 9.3% of ob-gyn physicians saw patients virtually, being one of the least prevalent specialties utilizing virtual visits (American Medical Association, 2019). Parents are very concerned about bringing their infants into a healthcare setting that can expose the family to the virus, and there is also tension among pregnant women to come in for prenatal checkups. Many women are worried about contracting the virus through exams that require close proximity to others. This is why in the current environment, providers have made an active effort to normalize virtual visits for maternal care, allowing for much better health outcomes for mothers and children. This is also supported by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), who are recommending ob-gyn providers to utilize telemedicine as much as possible.

Women who face obstetrical complications often have to travel great distances to see a specialist. Also, depending on their geographic area of residence, women will face barriers to good maternal health with the negative impact posed by social determinants of health such as income and race, as well as pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Dr. Patrick Ramsey, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at UT Health San Antonio, is emphasizing the need to become creative to deliver care to these patients. Examples of this are designing new ways to deliver tests and exams from remote locations, as well as leveraging audio call features rather than a video call. This will help address the issue of limited broadband connectivity for patients in rural areas. It is crucial that these factors are addressed in the development process of telemedicine products, especially for patients with limited access to specialized care.

Telemedicine was already on the rise prior to the pandemic, but with social distancing protocols and uncertainty about the timeline of returning to normalcy, it is being implemented in almost every healthcare organization. These clinics and health systems are now gaining valuable experience of efficiently delivering care virtually to patients. Even after social distancing protocols ease and this pandemic passes, telemedicine is on a clear trajectory to being mainstream worldwide.

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