Telemedicine at UMC

May 18, 2020

Telemedicine is helping to bridge the gap between patients and physicians during COVID-19.

University Medical Center has been offering telemedicine visits for patients since late March via Zoom, FaceTime and phone. The visits allow for the care and treatment of basic and urgent health needs without patients having to physically come to UMC to see their doctor.

Dr. Jared Ellis, a family medicine physician at UMC, has been seeing patients via telemedicine and said the service is working well.

“Sometimes you’re limited a little bit and not able to read body language. Sometimes it’s easy to talk over one another. But, overall, it’s very similar (to an office visit),” Ellis said.

Telemedicine allows patients to have scheduled virtual visits, for their routine and chronic care needs, to avoid face-to-face clinic visits and minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19. The technology is helping reduce the spread of the virus to the general population and to health-care workers. It is also being used to “forward triage” patients before they arrive at primary-care clinics.

Telemedicine has been around for a number of years, but it’s been during the COVID-19 pandemic that it’s become more widely used. Ellis said when health insurers began paying for the visits, “that opened up the opportunity for a lot more people.”

Mental health care providers at UMC are currently seeing most of their patients via teletherapy, and Dr. Nancy Rubin, a psychologist at UMC, said it has advantages. She said some people don’t have many safe relationships, so the thought of opening up to a stranger can be daunting.

How to prepare for a telemedicine visit:

  • Have a reliable device, such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer that enables audio and video.
  • A program, app or website to connect with your health-care provider.
  • A good internet connection or strong Wi-Fi.
  • A quiet, comfortable place to talk during the appointment.
  • Headphones (not essential but can be helpful with privacy and to block out noise).

At a telemedicine visit, your health-care provider:

  • Will review your medical chart and history and ask you questions.
  • May request additional health records or lab tests.
  • May write a prescription, which will be sent directly to your pharmacy.

Note: All telemedicine visits are confidential and HIPAA compliant.

“But if you’re sitting outside looking at the birds, it’s easier to talk to me,” she said, adding that teletherapy can also ease fears among those unsure about meeting with a mental health provider. “Therapy still has a lot of stigma to it,” Rubin said.

Dr. John Burkhardt, also a psychologist at UMC, said teletherapy requires him to use other senses. “When you walk into a room, you can tell if a person is sad, or if they’re anxious about something. So, there is a (missing) piece,” he said. “Teletherapy forces you to use your other senses that you took for granted. Right now, I’m more aware of different inflections in people’s voices, even subtle ones.”

Burkhardt said confidentiality seems to be the biggest concern among patients. He reassures them that, just like an office visit, teletherapy visits are strictly confidential and HIPAA compliant.

Rubin acknowledged there are some downsides to teletherapy. She said in-person, face-to-face contact can make a difference in understanding how someone feels, and it can change how a client might respond to therapy. She said humans co-regulate with each other, which means they respond emotionally, physically and biologically to the emotions and body language of others. When Rubin meets with her clients over the phone or via webcam, many of those physical cues can’t be seen.

“I’m very, very focused on the face, and I’m not getting the rest of your body language,” she said.

Still, Rubin said online therapy has its benefits, especially when it’s hard to cope with trauma and stress.

Burkhardt hopes telemedicine will continue to be used even after COVID-19 is over. He said the technology is a good way to reach people who lack transportation to clinics, as well as people in rural areas who lack access to health care.