Doug Duskin, HIT Consultant | 07/07/2022

COVID has shown us that telemedicine is effective and easy to use.  But why limit the use of virtual care to public health emergencies? With providers and clinicians under increasing strain from staffing gaps and other issues, telemedicine is a valuable solution

Telemedicine has been a crucial tool in the fight against COVID-19, allowing patients and providers to stay connected even when quarantine rules keep them physically separated.

During the first phase of the pandemic, both patients and providers embraced remote care, prompting an incredible spike in utilization – approximately 63 times pre-pandemic baseline levels among Medicare patients, new CMS data reveals.

While telemedicine use has leveled off somewhat since early 2020, it’s still seeing sustained interest from across the care continuum.  CHIME’s annual Most Wired survey found only a modest drop in utilization since the pandemic peak.  Ambulatory, long-term care, and acute care providers reported that 26 percent of their patients used telemedicine in 2021 compared to 32 percent in 2020.

This ongoing participation in telemedicine is excellent news for pandemic-weary healthcare organizations that are overwhelmed with increasing patient demands while facing workforce shortages in most clinical areas.

The stress and exhaustion the pandemic has caused in the medical workforce has led to an acceleration of resignations.  Approximately 20 percent of healthcare providers have quit their jobs over the course of the pandemic, said Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, during a recent U.S. News and World Report webinar.  This is a troubling trend that must be reversed.

Fortunately, we already have the tools at hand to address the problem.  Telemedicine is the key to helping us do more with less – without sacrificing care quality, patient safety, or shared patient-provider satisfaction.

For example, the National Emergency Tele-Critical Care Network is helping to maximize emergency response resources in Florida.  When homebound COVID patients need Regeneron monoclonal antibodies, EMS workers on-site deliver the treatment.  Then, qualified clinicians use telemedicine to provide remote monitoring for the recommended 60 minutes of observation, allowing EMS staff on the ground to move on to their next call quickly.

Acute care providers can also take advantage of remote clinicians to shore up overloaded staff.  In one small, rural community hospital, virtual clinicians stepped in to deliver critical care consulting for staff members unfamiliar with treating a large number of patients on ventilators.  With insight from remote colleagues, the clinicians on-site could attend to other patients seeking acute care services without being stretched too thin.

In the long-term care setting, telemedicine can offer a crucial bridge between seniors and providers for everyday care.  Primrose Retirement Communities, which operates facilities in 17 states, is leveraging telemedicine to avoid hospital transports for its medically fragile residents.  Immediate, 24-hour care from remote geriatric-trained clinicians significantly relieves pressure on Primrose’s clinical staff, allowing nurses and other on-site professionals to provide high-quality care to all the patients in their charge.

We cannot predict when the pandemic will end, and we certainly cannot count on an influx of tens of thousands of fresh new healthcare providers any time soon.  Instead, we must use the technologies and strategies at our disposal to create a healthcare environment that is resilient, adaptable, and patient-centered.  We must be flexible and creative with forging new relationships and data-driven connections to support our essential medical workforce.

Telemedicine is the proven solution for doing more with less – it is a workforce multiplier that helps relieve the burden on the doctors, nurses, and clinicians at the bedside.  If we embrace telemedicine’s potential for closing staffing gaps and expanding care access during and after the pandemic, we will be better prepared to build a strong and effective healthcare system that can withstand the growing pressures of the future.