It’s hard to remember, but there was once a time when we just used our phones to talk. These days, we use smartphones for everything from controlling the thermostat in our living room when we are out and about, to navigating the best way home and ordering a ride to the airport. We do everything with our phones (sometimes even, make calls!), so it’s no surprise that telemedicine for surgeons is also creeping its way onto our smartphone’s capabilities. Using HIPAA-compliant video or texting technology, doctors – including surgeons – can now provide patients with quality care, without having to see them in person.
Telemedicine in Surgery: An Untapped Frontier
It sounds like a totally modern phenomenon, but telemedicine is nothing new. It’s actually been around for decades in one form or another, such as a 1970’s partnership between the Indian Health Services and NASA (yes, that NASA) that provided Native Americans on the Papago Reservation in Arizona and orbiting astronauts with medical care. But it hasn’t exactly disrupted the regular healthcare system. Yet. That could all be about to change as surgeons and patients get more comfortable with using telehealth in surgery for digital consults and as more services are offered online.
Why isn’t Telemedicine for Surgeons Used More?
“Direct-to-consumer virtual specialty and chronic care are largely untapped frontiers,” says Emily Zuehlke, Consultant at the Advisory Board, a firm helping healthcare organizations improve their performance.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, all areas of healthcare saw a boom in telemedicine. According to a survey carried out by Doctor.com, 83% of patients expect to continue using telemedicine after the pandemic.
In a Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come,” sort of way, Advisory Board says the healthcare industry has largely underestimated and, until the pandemic, failed to meet consumer interest in virtual care.
Below we will explore why telemedicine for surgeons hasn’t been fully adopted.
Telemedicine in Surgical Care: The Patient’s Perspective
Physicians, mistakenly, believe patients only want an in-person relationship with their doctor, which is sweet, but apparently misguided.
Given that people can do almost everything online, having to leave the house, sit in traffic, find parking, sit in a waiting room, and sit, and sit, then do the same in reverse on the way home is increasingly becoming a big ask for what is often a very brief consult.
The advantages of telemedicine for surgery are especially true for patients who live in rural areas without easy access to a hospital or physician’s office. For such communities, telehealth used in surgery is a potential healthcare gamechanger.
Overall, patients recommend doctors who use telehealth, with 79% of respondents in a recent study by AMA very satisfied with the care received during their last telehealth visit.
If adopting telehealth in surgery and medical clinics is advantageous for patients, why don’t more practices use telemedicine?
Challenges of Telemedicine in Surgery
There are a number of potential barriers to adopting telemedicine for surgeons and patients.
Challenges of using telemedicine in surgery include:
- computer literacy/ technical challenges
- hardware & software requirements for both physicians and patients
- integration into existing surgical practice’s workflow.
Addressing Barriers to Using Telemedicine for Surgeons
To ensure successful implementation of virtual care for patients, surgical practices can pre-empt the challenges by focusing on different elements.
Technical challenges and hardware/ software requirements
Both physicians and patients need to have the right equipment to be able to communicate virtually. They need a Wi-fi enabled device, such as a laptop with an integrated camera and microphone or smartphone.
Additionally, they need the software to facilitate the visit, such as:
Surgeons should test drive the platform they will use before having a visit with a patient. Surgical practices need to ensure they offer both the physicians and patients adequate technical support and training, where necessary, to help guarantee the successful implementation of telehealth in surgery.
Providers can use a handy tool kit published by Dr Catherine Ann Matthews and team, to help them convert to telemedicine more easily.
Integrating telemedicine in surgery practice’s workflows and existing health records is also vital in ensuring efficient adoption of telehealth.
Using a scheduling software solution, such as Surgimate, can help a surgical practice manage virtual visits and decide how and when they fit into the schedule. A surgical scheduling calendar can be used to inform surgeons of digital consults and enable telemedicine post-surgery.
Providers also need to be able to update patient’s electronic health records during or post the visit. They need to be aware of the language necessary to sufficiently document virtual visits and ensure telehealth surgery follow-up care.
The Surgeon’s Perspective to Telehealth in Surgery
According to Michael Greiwe, MD, CEO of OrthoLive, an orthopedic telemedicine start-up, over 70% of initial (uncomplicated) orthopedic injuries can be diagnosed via telemedicine, saving a lot of waiting room woes.
“Telemedicine is the best thing that has happened to orthopedic patients since the advent of joint replacement,” says Greiwe. He explains that over the last 40 years, medicine has become more of a business between doctors and insurance companies. “The forgotten party among all this is the patient. They’ve had to spend less time with the doctor [and] more time in the waiting room…Telemedicine for surgeons is changing all of that. We are giving patients the convenience that they’ve never had and serving them better.”
And it’s working. “It’s extremely rare to find patients who don’t like the online experience,” says Greiwe, “especially when they already met the physician in person and the physician-patient relationship has already started.”
Turn On, Log In, Click Out
So how does it work? Take the system run by Michigan Medicine. Forget sitting in a waiting room. Patients choose the 15-minute slot that works best for them. To access the doctor, patients login to the Michigan Medicine online patient portal with a mobile device and click on the Video Visit icon to start their clinic experience. No waiting needed.
The system was introduced in March 2017 and now “eClinics” are being used in gastroenterology, urology and general surgery divisions.
The telemedicine post surgery service is available (as are “traditional” follow-ups) for patients who have undergone “uncomplicated procedures” that have demonstrably low complication rates.
Millennials: Top Digital Patients
Unsurprisingly, millennials are the most pro-telecare. In a survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 40% of millennials reported that telemedicine is an extremely important option. This compares to 27% among Gen Xers and 19% for Boomers.
Part of the reason for the slow uptake in telehealth used in surgery is that patients just aren’t sure what can and can’t be done remotely. The Advisory Board survey revealed only 9% of potential patients had no concerns about going digital. Twenty-one percent of respondents were concerned with care quality, followed by the provider not being able to diagnose or treat them virtually (19%), meaning they would have to go to the physical clinic anyway.
While Greiwe says it’s rare to find patients who don’t love the online experience, he admits that there are those with reservations. Something he tends to see when patients meet their doctor for the first time online. “Younger patients seem less bothered by this,” he says, “but when we started “direct-to-consumer” sales for new patients, we found that there were less interested parties than if the diagnosis had already been established.”
The Role of Telemedicine for Surgeons in the Future
As patients’ acceptance and desire for virtual healthcare continues, expect more doctors to get on board.
To prepare future physicians to use telemedicine effectively, a growing number of medical schools and teaching hospitals are including it in classroom and clinical instruction. According to AAMC data, telemedicine was already a topic (required or elective) at 84 medical schools as far back as the 2016–2017 academic year, up from 57 schools (about 41%) in 2013-2014.
While the in-office consult isn’t going away, yet, using telehealth in surgery clinics is beginning to take some of the strain out of seeing a doctor.
Discover how you can use Surgimate’s surgical scheduling platform to help guarantee the successful adoption of telemedicine in your practice.