In the wake of a global pandemic, the World Wide Web has become overloaded with everything virtual. Whether it is online shopping, online learning, or online medical appointments, everything seems to take place on your computer screen. The past two years have made telemedicine a key element in maintaining one’s health initiatives and goals.
What is telemedicine? Telemedicine is the use of technology by a healthcare professional to provide patient care and services. It can be done through audio and video communication. However, it should be noted that email and text messaging consultations are discouraged because they are not official appointments.
Having appointments from the comfort of one’s own home is a convenience and, for those who have physical limitations, a necessity. Dr. Mohammed N. Fareed, medical director of the Wisconsin Health Fund Medical & Dental Center, says that with telemedicine, it is easy for his patients with respiratory problems to get quick medical attention without having to get to a hospital or immediate care facility. It also encourages his working patients to squeeze an appointment into their busy schedules.
Over the past two years, telemedicine has been a key element in maintaining health initiatives during a global pandemic. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “the share of Medicare visits conducted through telehealth in 2020 increased 63-fold, from approximately 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million.” When it comes to contagious diseases such as COVID-19 and its variants, telemedicine was a lifesaver, literally. Patients were able to see their doctors on video and describe their ailments without leaving their homes and spreading the virus. It was possible for the elderly, the immunocompromised, children, and those who were so careful that they hadn’t gone inside a restaurant for over a year to have an appointment or follow up with their doctor without being exposed to the virus.
The rise in telemedicine also brought about an increase in behavioral and mental health management. “In 2020, telehealth visits comprised a third of total visits to behavioral health specialists, compared to 8 percent of visits to primary care providers and 3 percent of visits to other specialists,” according to the HHS. Behavioral and mental health are sensitive topics, and telemedicine has allowed the patient to feel more comfortable by having a virtual appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist from their home instead of walking into an office.
There is no doubt that telemedicine is convenient, and it creates an increase in medical appointments and health diagnoses. However, there are numerous limitations. A physician relies on multiple factors to diagnose and treat a patient, and the diagnostics involve both qualitative and quantitative data. Observing the patient is an important element. “Follow-up appointments may be more feasible for telemedicine. However, when it comes to a diagnosis, and especially an initial one, over 70% of diagnoses occur through seeing, listening, and speaking with a patient. The other 30% is through the test results,” says Dr. Ehtesham J. Ghani, an internist at Hinsdale Hospital and medical director of ThinfastMD in Illinois.
Technical difficulties can also compromise the quality of a virtual appointment. Zoom, WebEx, cellular devices, or any other audio or video platform can have quality issues. At the same time, having patients speak from public settings or even at home with others around them creates the risk of a patient’s private information no longer being private.
In addition to potentially compromising the quality and accuracy of a patient’s care, the virtual world also puts safety and security at stake. No portal is completely private, and it is especially concerning when sensitive material is being relayed. Although most medical portals are secure and encrypted, no form of telecommunication is immune from data breaches or hackers. The most vulnerable demographic in this arena is the elderly. “Connectivity and confidentiality, especially for the elderly trying to operate technology, can be difficult to maintain,” says Dr. Fareed. Sensitive data leaks can occur in all aspects of the internet, and medical data is at risk.
So, what is the verdict on telemedicine? It depends upon your age, health level, and technical know-how. A young, healthy individual who wants a consultation on maintaining a healthy lifestyle would benefit from it. On the other hand, an individual who is experiencing symptoms but cannot describe them well needs to have an in-person appointment. Also, if an individual has a skin ailment or something that needs to be looked at or observed, an in-person consultation is necessary. In either choice, remember to do your best to take care of your health by consulting a physician and making dua to the Ultimate Healer.
“And when I am ill, it is He who cures me.” (Quran 26:80)
Husna T. Ghani has an MBA and an MSEd. She is a former science teacher and is currently a strategy consultant in the spheres of communication and education. When she isn’t doing her day job, she focuses on dessert-making and saving the world, one pastry at a time.