For Patrick Beiter, M.D., tending to elderly patients is all in a day’s work. He is, after all, a family doctor. But there’s something novel, and maybe still a bit strange, about seeing those older patients’ faces lighting up a video call during a checkup.
The TriHealth physician recalls a particular day, back in May, when half of his telemedicine appointments were with patients in their 90s.
“That was kind of an exception,” Beiter says. “Most of the time, it spans the gamut of multiple ages, from children up to about 80, 90. But it was just a unique day that I had a 90-, a 91-, and a 93-year-old who all did video visits.”
When the pandemic hit in the spring of last year, TriHealth, which had already been working to fine-tune its pilot telemedicine platform, worked quickly to make video visits available, ensuring patients were able to safely access care from home.
It’s a practice that, although born out of necessity, has opened up new avenues for patients. A video visit isn’t just a safer alternative to an in-person appointment—in many cases, it’s also far more convenient. No need to drive across town and sit in the waiting room for a routine check-in. Patients simply log into MyChart, TriHealth’s virtual portal, and click a link that connects directly to a video feed with a doctor.
“It’s definitely opened up avenues for patients who either live a far distance away and have to take off half a day of work, or even a whole day of work, to drive to the office and drive back home,” Beiter says.
As COVID-19 intensified in April, Beiter saw a sharp drop in the number of patients seeking in-clinic care—his office was only seeing about half the typical number of patients. But soon, he estimates, up to 75 percent of his appointments were taking place virtually.
Still, telemedicine has its limitations. Doctors can’t perform physical exams, give immunizations, or draw blood over a video conference. Video visits are typically reserved for patients with mild illnesses or chronic conditions, like diabetes or hypertension, that are well-controlled. But for older patients living in nursing homes and retirement communities, telemedicine has been an invaluable tool.
“The State of Ohio had pretty strict mandates on patients in extended care facilities,” Beiter says. “If they left the facility for any reason, including going to the doctor’s office, when they came back to the facility, they had to quarantine in their own room for 14 days.”
Although Beiter isn’t quite ready to call this the new normal—he’d rather get back to an actual normal—it’s apparent that telemedicine visits will be an important part of how patients access care in the future.
“I do think it’ll be here to stay,” he says. “I think there will be a desire from some patients to continue to do video visits. But it’s still not going to completely replace visits for testing, lab visits, and things of that nature. We’re still going to need to see patients.”