Telemedicine technology has been around for a few decades but it was never optimally utilized until the COVID-19 pandemic. Insurance reimbursement was a big barrier in utilizing telemedicine along with other systems barriers. In March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). After this, telemedicine was considered the preferred modality of treatment in the health care industry, and insurance supported the use of this technology. This was a big change for physicians. We had to adapt to this new technology within days. This transition had its pros and cons, and there was a lot of uncertainty about the usage of telemedicine at that time. When the pandemic started, we were worried if we would be able to continue to safely provide care for our patients or not. With telemedicine as a preferred modality, several of us started working from home. It’s been more than a year now since we have been doing Telemedicine and it has been an interesting experience. Some of us love it and some not so much.
Now most of us are comfortable with this technology and some of us prefer virtual over in-person visits. We never thought that we would be able to build therapeutic rapport and feel connected with patients via telemedicine but I have to say that I feel connected. Research supports this as well. A systematic review by Guaiana and et al published in October 2020 in the Community Mental Health journal showed that the efficacy of Telemedicine and in-person visits were similar (1). Several patients prefer using Telemedicine over in-person visits.
There are several advantages of Telemedicine visits. From the patient perspective: 1) They can overcome the geographical barrier and save the transportation cost. 2) They don’t have to worry about bad weather. 3) Several patients are very anxious about waiting in the doctor’s office so they like virtual visits. 4) Mobility is another barrier. As with any technology, there are disadvantages of telemedicine as well. Some patients don’t have access to video technology, some patients are not tech-savvy and it intimidates them to use this platform. As physicians, we see several advantages and disadvantages as well. One of the biggest advantages has been the ability to continue patient care during the COVID- 19 pandemic. Patients’ show rate has been better as compared to in-person visits. Psychiatry is more equipped to do Telemedicine as compared to other specialties where physicals are needed to diagnose and treat patients. With the COVID-19 pandemic, research is showing worsening of mental health so demand for mental health treatment is increasing. Maxime T. et al did a retrospective cohort study on 236379 patients who were COVID survivors. They found out that the estimated evidence of neurological and psychiatric diagnosis was 33.62% in the following six months post-COVID (2).
At this time Telemedicine continues to grow in Psychiatry but we still don’t know what would be the future of Telemedicine once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Will we as physicians and our patients struggle with virtual “ fatigue” or will we continue like this? Will this pandemic be over or is COVID- 19 here to stay? Will this be a “new normal” or not? It is hard to answer these questions at this time. It would be appropriate to have a hybrid model where patients and physicians can have the choice to have either virtual or in-person visits depending on what’s best for the patient. As with any other decision-making in health care, we have to weigh the risks and benefits and make our best decision.
1.Guaiana, G., Mastrangelo, J., Hendrikx, S. et al. A Systematic Review of the Use of Telepsychiatry in Depression. Community Mental Health Journal 57, 93–100 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-020-00724-2
2.6-month neurological and psychiatric outcomes in 236379 survivors of COVID-19: a retrospective cohort study using electronic health records Maxime Taquet, John R Geddes, Masud Husain, Sierra Luciano, Paul J Harrison