Telehealth, the virtual care platforms that allow health care professionals and patients to meet by phone or video chat, seems tailor-made for this moment in time. Also known as telemedicine or digital health, it’s often touted as a convenience for patients who are busy or far away, or when travel isn’t feasible due to severe weather or an urgent condition like a stroke. The current crisis makes virtual care solutions like telehealth an indispensable tool as COVID-19 spreads across US communities. As director of the Center for TeleHealth at Massachusetts General Hospital and vice president of virtual care for Partners Healthcare, I believe it can help flatten the curve of infections and help us to deploy medical staff and lifesaving equipment wisely.
How can telehealth help during the COVID-19 outbreak?
While it’s likely many people will become infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, most will not get seriously ill. Those at greatest risk are over 60, or have underlying health conditions or a compromised immune system. The number one job for all of us is to avoid becoming a carrier and distributor of the virus. By using virtual care for much regular, necessary medical care, and deferring elective procedures or annual checkups, we free up medical staff and equipment needed for those who become seriously ill from COVID-19. Additionally, by not congregating in small spaces like waiting rooms, we thwart the ability of the virus to hop from one person to another. Keeping people apart is called “social distancing.” Keeping healthcare providers apart from patients and other providers is “medical distancing.” Telehealth is one strategy to help us accomplish this.
How can medical staff use telehealth to decide who should come to the hospital?
We think that patients with minor symptoms of COVID-19, such as cough and body aches, can rest at home, drinking fluids and treating this like any flulike illness. Test kits are in short supply and currently being used mainly for certain groups: for example, patients who are high-risk or seriously ill, and medical staff who have symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19, to help prevent further spread of illness. Telehealth uses video chat, or even a simple phone call, to allow medical staff to ask specific questions and gather information to find out whether care is urgently needed, or if a person can continue to self-monitor symptoms at home while recovering. It can also be used for regular check-ins during recovery, as needed.
How can you make the best use of a clinician’s time on the call?
In the US, health care providers are following guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local health departments, and hospital infectious disease experts. The screening questions a clinician asks during the call help establish if a person is in a low-, medium-, or high-risk group, and if they have mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of upper respiratory infection