Increased telemedicine use by older adults
“We’ve seen an exciting expansion of telemedicine use among older adults, and we need to focus on continuing to meet their needs,” Dr. Frydman said.
In a recentof televisits during the pandemic, Dr. Frydman’s group found a fivefold greater uptake of remote consultations by seniors – from 5% to 25%. Although in-person visits were far more common among older adults.
A specific advantage of video-based over audio-only telehealth, noted Dr. Albritton, is that physicians can directly observe patients in their home environment. Sharing that view is Deepa Iyengar, MBBS/MD,MPH, professor of family medicine at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where, she said, “the pandemic has put VTC use into overdrive.”
According to Dr. Iyengar, who was not involved in the RTI research, the video component definitely represents value-added over phone calls. “You can pick up visual cues on video that you might not see if the patient came in and you can see what the home environment is like – whether there are a lot of loose rugs on the floor or broken or missing light bulbs,” she said in an interview.
‘VTC is here to stay’
In other parts of the country, doctors are finding virtual care useful – and more common. “VTC is here to stay, for sure – the horse is out of the barn,” said Cheryl L. Wilkes, MD, an internist at Northwestern Medicine and assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. “The RTI study shows no harm from VTC and also shows it may even improve clinical outcomes.”
Video visits can also save patients high parking fees at clinics and spare the sick or elderly from having to hire caregivers to bring them into the office or from having to walk blocks in dangerous weather conditions, she added. “And I can do a virtual visit on the fly or at night when a relative or caregiver is home from work to be there with the patient.”
In addition to being beneficial for following up with patients with chronic diseases such as hypertension or diabetes, VTC may be able to replace some visits that have traditionally required hands-on care, said Dr. Wilkes.
She said she knows a cardiologist who has refined a process whereby a patient – say, one who may have edema – is asked to perform a maneuver via VTC and then display the result to the doctor: The doctor says, “put your leg up and press on it hard for 10 seconds and then show me what it looks like,” according to Dr. Wilkes.
The key now is to identify the best persons across specialties from neurology to rheumatology to videotape ways they’ve created to help their patients participate virtually in consults traditionally done at the office, Dr. Wilkes noted.
But some conditions will always require palpation and the use of a stethoscope, according Dr. Iyengar.
“If someone has an ulcer, I have to be able to feel it,” she said.
And while some maternity care can be given virtually – for instance, if a mother-to be develops a bad cold – hands-on obstetrical care to check the position and health of the baby obviously has to be done in person. “So VTC is definitely going to be a welcome addition but not a replacement,” Dr. Iyengar said.
Gaps in research on VTC visits
Many questions remain regarding the overall usefulness of VTC visits for certain patient groups, according to the authors.
They highlighted, for example, the dearth of data on subgroups or on underserved and vulnerable populations, with no head-to-head studies identified in their review. In addition, they found no studies examining VTC versus usual care for patients with concurrent conditions or on its effect on health equity and disparities.
“It’s now our job to understand the ongoing barriers to telemedicine access, including the digital divide and the usability of telemedicine platforms, and design interventions that overcome them,” Dr. Frydman said. “At the same time, we need to make sure we’re understanding and respecting the preferences of older adults in terms of how they access health care.”
This study was supported by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). Dr. Albritton is employed by RTI International, the contractor responsible for conducting the research and developing the manuscript. Several coauthors disclosed support from or contracts with PCORI. One coauthor’s spouse holds stock in private health companies. Dr. Frydman, Dr. Iyengar, and Dr. Wilkes disclosed no competing interests relevant to their comments.