The Importance of Telemedicine Grows Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic | local news

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TThe coronavirus has forced doctors to see patients in new ways, and one of those is through a computer monitor miles away from the patient.

The pandemic has brought greater prominence to telemedicine, which has been around for years but has come into desperate use with the spread of the coronavirus in early 2020. Officials at Medicare, the state-sponsored insurance for seniors, have also increased the number of cases telemedicine could be covered during the pandemic.

Whether the widespread use of telemedicine and broad insurance coverage for it will continue is not certain, those who know the benefits of telemedicine say it’s proven and is here to stay.

“It’s become part of life,” said Sharon V. Nir, administrative director of strategic operations at Albuquerque-based Lovelace Medical Group. “I think it’s the new world.”

In March 2020, with the arrival of the coronavirus, Lovelace created an extensive program to make remote visits available to patients and doctors via laptops, iPads, mobile phones and desktops with cameras and microphones.

Presbyterian Healthcare Services, Christ St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, University of New Mexico Health, La Familia Medical Center, and most other medical systems are also increasing the use of telemedicine.

Santa Fe Preparatory School teacher Brad Fairbanks fell over the handlebars while riding his bike last month, fractured a collarbone and three ribs. He spent some time in an emergency room, but his follow-up visits to his family doctor, Dr. Carl Friedrichs of the Presbyterian Medical Group, were conducted remotely.

Fairbanks, 61, said the follow-up appointments and pain medication assessments were just as effective via video conference as they were in person.

“This was my first time doing telemedicine,” said Fairbanks, the chair of performing arts at his school. “Yes, it worked great.”

He said the accident happened at a bad time as his students were preparing to host the show 9 to 5 The musical. He missed four workdays and two rehearsals, and had to attend two more rehearsals via zoom technology.

Friedrichs said that a lot can be achieved with a telemedicine appointment.

“The patient has a choice,” he said. “It’s an additional tool for patients.”

In a large state like New Mexico with vast rural areas, it makes sense to rely on telemedicine, he said. “This is a state with limited medical resources.”

Of course, video conferencing cannot be used for everything. Annual physical examinations and diagnoses that require the laying on of hands by the physician must be performed in person. Blood draws for lab work require a visit, although the outcome of that lab work can be covered in a virtual appointment. And some patients aren’t comfortable with the technology.

But telemedicine gives patients in rural areas and those who are struggling to find transportation the ability to have some of their services done via video conferencing. And as the highly contagious coronavirus swept through the world, patients who dreaded going to the doctor’s office had an alternative.

Christine and Ed Shestak, of Albuquerque, have each had about four video conference dates about Lovelace since the pandemic began.

“For routine things, it kind of minimizes the risk of picking up anything that someone else might have,” said Christine Shestak, 69, at the doctor’s office. She recalled taking her children to the pediatrician many years ago, children would cough, their noses would run and children would share toys in the waiting room.

Telemedicine is a solution, she said, and if she has the flu, she doesn’t have to carry it to the clinic and possibly infect others.

Ed Shestak, who will soon be 70, said he has hearing aids and sometimes struggles to absorb it all when there’s background noise in the doctor’s office. At home, he puts on headphones for his virtual visits. “I can hear and understand better,” he said.

Of course, insurance coverage for telemedicine is complicated. Before the pandemic, Medicare coverage for telemedicine generally favored rural patients and also included some specific conditions, such as end-stage kidney disease and stroke.

However, as the coronavirus forced patients to work from home and limit travel, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded emergency coverage to patients in cities, to a greater variety of physicians, and for a broader range of reasons.

Telemedicine, used by general practitioners, was booming. Specialists in psychology, digestive tract, lungs and heart also saw an increased use of telemedicine. The federal government reported in December that Medicare-covered telemedicine visits jumped from 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020.

Presbyterian spokeswoman Amanda Schoenberg said scheduled telemedicine visits to the Presbyterian Medical Group increased 100-fold from 2019 to 2021.

Medicare will continue to cover many of these services through at least 2023 while officials evaluate the system.

Tennessee-based law firm Baker Donelson says on its website that the new Medicare rules also permanently removed geographic restrictions on telemedicine for the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of mental health disorders.

Stetson Berg, chairman of the New Mexico Telehealth Alliance, said Congress must pass legislation to solidify much of the coverage that has been added on an emergency basis during the pandemic.

Berg said New Mexico state law offers some of the most advanced private insurance coverage for telemedicine and has served as a “shining star” in the field for nearly 10 years. New Mexico was ahead of the game in part because it’s so rural, he said. Other states are catching up.

In the diary Annals of Internal MedicineResearchers reported last month that analysis of 38 studies showed that video conferencing “generally results in similar clinical efficacy, health care utilization, patient satisfaction, and quality of life as usual care in the areas studied.”

These studies are limited to “patients seeking care for a limited set of purposes,” the report added.

Christ spokesman Arturo Delgado wrote in a text message that virtual visits “are suitable for most evaluations. Conditions that can be evaluated include everything from a cough or cold to more complicated conditions like diabetes or heart disease.”

Jasmin Milz Holmstrup, a spokeswoman for La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, said telemedicine use at her facility increased significantly from 2020 to 2021.

“It’s an effective way to see patients who don’t have urgent needs,” she said.

The University of New Mexico Health said the institution “has used all available options to continue patient care, including telemedicine. This has been a successful way to ensure patients continue to receive care and have access to a provider.”

Prep teacher Fairbanks said his students prepared for the play while he was “in my recliner, freaking out.”

The shows took place from March 3rd to 6th and telemedicine appointments and Zoom attendance at rehearsals were no problem. His students pulled through.

“It worked,” he said. “And the kids went up.”

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