My Turn: In a pandemic, patient care continues through telehealth

For the Monitor
Published: 4/8/2020 6:00:20 AM

We are all acutely aware of the challenges our health care providers are facing as they seek to treat patients infected with COVID-19. Working with limited resources, they are adapting quickly, determined to continue providing excellent care to all patients, at a time when face-to-face visits must be minimized. In many cases, this is being accomplished through the expansion of telehealth services.

Challenging times often lead to innovations in “business as usual,” and while many of us may not be accustomed to health care services offered online, I encourage patients to try telehealth and to continue to seek needed care, even as it is being delivered in a new way.

Telehealth is the provision of health care services remotely, using technology for communication rather than an in-person visit. For many years, it has been used very effectively in New Hampshire to provide mental health screenings in emergency rooms. In some emergency rooms when every minute counts, telehealth has been used to provide lifesaving access to specialists assessing stroke patients.

The expansion of telehealth has many benefits: It can help to alleviate provider shortages, increase access to specialty services, and ease the burden of accessing care for those who have transportation or mobility challenges. Telehealth allows patients to receive care without the risk of transmission of disease and, of particular importance during this pandemic, reduces the consumption of scarce personal protective equipment for providers. It is a tool that, when used appropriately, can improve access and quality of care while reducing cost.

Over the years, the use of telehealth has been hindered by regulatory and payer restrictions. Recent emergency orders by both state and federal authorities have temporarily removed many of these obstacles to ensure the continued delivery of care during this pandemic and, in response, many providers have moved rapidly to transition to telehealth services.

While we are confronting COVID-19, many patients may delay or forego seeking treatment for conditions that need attention, whether in their physical or mental health. Delays in seeking care can have significant detrimental consequences. Patients should not be reluctant to reach out to health care providers if they need medical attention during this crisis. Providers are making monumental efforts to ensure care is available, including through the use of telehealth services.

In a difficult time, it gives me optimism that new measures like telehealth could lead to long-term improvements in our health care system. Once this pandemic has passed, I hope both state and federal authorities will consider a permanent expansion of telehealth services. It is long overdue.

(Cinde Warmington is a health care attorney at Shaheen & Gordon, P.A. and a candidate for Executive Council in District 2.)

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