Sally Pipes: Coronavirus lockdown unleashes potential of this form of medicine

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Ninety-five percent of the country is currently under a stay-at-home order, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. So for those in need of a check-up, or a prescription refill, or a quick look at some swelling around a child's eye, a virtual visit to the doctor may be the best option.

That may seem like a suboptimal substitute for a conventional doctor's appointment. But it's much safer in the midst of the pandemic when every trip to a public place could result in exposure to the coronavirus. Telemedicine isn't just quicker and more convenient than in-person care – it's actually every bit as effective.

That's among the findings of a study published April 14 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Researchers reviewed more than 6,500 remote consultations and found that more than seven in 10 were completely appropriate for the patients screened. More than eight in 10 of those telehealth consults resulted in the avoidance of an in-person visit in the four months that followed.

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In recent weeks, insurers and policymakers have taken steps to expand access to telemedicine. The first federal coronavirus relief package essentially allowed any Medicare beneficiary to receive telehealth care from his or her provider. Private insurers such as Aetna and Humana have eliminated cost-sharing for telemedicine visits. The Federal Communications Commission has begun distributing $200 million in aid to bolster telehealth services in states hit hard by the coronavirus, like New York and Ohio.

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Patients have rushed to make use of remote care. Teladoc, a New York-based telemedicine provider, now conducts 20,000 visits a day – more than double its daily average in early March. Banyan Medical Systems, which partners with hospitals nationwide to provide virtual care, says it's experienced a 900 percent increase in patient use of telehealth.

Telemedicine has long been more than talking to a doctor over Skype. Wearable devices can track patients' vital signs and transmit them to doctors in real time. According to a study published April 16 in the medical journal JAMA, a smartphone-based monitoring program with electronic visits was just as effective at controlling the blood pressure of heart attack patients as the standard course of conventional in-person visits to the clinic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how much medical care can be delivered remotely – and delivered well.

Remote monitoring can also help doctors catch and prevent potential health problems early on. For example, Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland reduced hospitalizations by 90 percent and cut ER visits in half after implementing a home monitoring program for chronic disease patients.

There are even effective remote alternatives to invasive procedures. Experts recommend that every American over 50 receive a colonoscopy every 10 years. But a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that at-home stool screenings could detect colon cancer just as effectively as colonoscopies. Patients simply collect the sample on their own and mail it to the lab for evaluation.

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Diagnostic companies now offer home tests for everything from allergies to cholesterol and heart health. Austin, Texas-based Everywell provides physician-reviewed results along with suggested next steps on its smartphone app.

Of course, telemedicine has its limits. Doctors can't administer vaccines over FaceTime, and a Zoom meeting can't replace a blood test. But there's plenty that non-doctors can do to deliver necessary care closer to home.

For example, experts worry that the COVID-19 outbreak will prevent children from receiving routine vaccinations. Permitting pharmacists to administer common vaccines would make it easier for parents to keep their kids' shots up to date. It's also generally cheaper to administer vaccines at pharmacies than in doctors' offices or medical clinics, according to a recent study by my Pacific Research Institute colleague Wayne Winegarden.

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Yet most states bar pharmacists from administering more than the flu vaccine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how much medical care can be delivered remotely – and delivered well. We must remember those lessons after the pandemic passed.

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