COVID-19 Has Created Opportunities for Telemedicine

November 5, 2020

While telemedicine is not new widespread adoption of it has been slow, but that’s changing as the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating use of the technology, said Dr. Nathan Culmer, assistant professor and director of Educational Technology for the College of Community Health Sciences.

“Telemedicine is like the little engine that could,” Culmer said. “Some telemedicine was done back in the 1970s, but it’s really only been in the last several years that there’s been growth. And situations like COVID have created even more opportunities to grow.”

Culmer provided a presentation about telemedicine Oct. 27 as part of this semester’s Mini Medical School program. Mini Medical School is a joint program of UA’s OLLI program and CCHS and provides an opportunity for OLLI and community members to receive updates and learn about trends in medicine and health.

Telemedicine is the practice of caring for patients remotely, when the doctor or other health-care provider and the patient are not physically present with each other. With telemedicine, patients and providers can discuss symptoms, medical issue and treatment options in real time.

There are several divisions of telemedicine, Culmer said: traditional telemedicine or video conferencing between patient and provider; store-and-forward, which includes X-rays, scans and other imaging that has to be stored in a medical system and forwarded to provider and patient; and remote patient monitoring, which allows doctors to receive readings medical devices provided to patients to remotely monitor their conditions.

Among the benefits of telemedicine is that it reduces barriers of time, distance, health professional shortages and disparities in access to care, Culmer said. He noted that telemedicine is used in clinics and hospital operating rooms, schools, sports programs and workplaces, adding that airplanes and shipping barges often have telemedicine kits on board and that telemedicine has been used for some time on battlegrounds.

In many states, Medicaid programs have begun providing coverage of mental health and home health services via telemedicine, as well as remote patient monitoring. “There’s a groundswell strong enough to change the way we think about reimbursement,” Culmer said.

Still, there are challenges, he said, and reimbursement remains one of them. There’s also useability of equipment, demand on the part of patients for telemedicine, and broadband connectivity. In Alabama, 27% of the population does not have access to or reliable broadband, Culmer said.

“Ultimately, it’s the connection, the relationship, that matters,” he said. “The ability to communicate via Zoom is wonderful, but would you rather meet with your doctor in person? The richness of the (face-to-face) encounter is rewarding, but we don’t always have that luxury.”