The Virtual Patient Experience During COVID-19

David Ko, M.D., Family Medicine

In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you might still be adjusting to the “new normal” when it comes to everyday life. Maybe you’re once again starting to feel comfortable dining out or heading into businesses to run your errands; or maybe because of health concerns or an abundance of caution, you’re still opting for low-contact or contactless alternatives. Thankfully, no matter where you stand, many businesses are providing multiple options to help you address your everyday needs. But what about medicine? 

Shimaila Zuberi, M.D.. Family Medicine

Before the pandemic, you might not have considered a Virtual Visit with your physician. In fact, according to a new survey by Sage Growth Partners (SGP) and Black Book Market Research, only 25 percent of respondents had previously tried telehealth prior to the pandemic. Even though the same study reports that 59 percent of respondents are more willing to try telehealth now versus before, almost a quarter still have their concerns. 

That’s why we spoke to Drs. David Ko, M.D., and Shimaila Zuberi, M.D., family medicine physicians on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and Texas Health Family Care in The Colony, to understand how it works, what conditions can be addressed or treated during Virtual Visits, what conditions would require an office visit, and to get their take on the overall experience. 

 

What kind of initial reaction to telehealth have you seen from patients? Are people welcoming Virtual Visits with open arms or is there some apprehension about the experience?

“I haven’t met anyone who is really opposed to it. Everyone’s main concern is really about the difficulty of it — do they have to download something, how do they access it, etc.,” Ko says. “Initially, those concerns were valid, but now it’s very easy and convenient. So I think patients really, really like it.” 

 

Are you seeing a certain demographic that is leaning into Virtual Visits more than others, or is it pretty well rounded? 

“I’ve found that those that are elderly, working or in college prefer Virtual Visits the most as they have more restrictions as to when and how they can come into the clinic,” Zuberi says. “For the elderly, they can avoid going through the hassle of leaving the comfort of their home, driving through traffic and waiting in the lobby. Those who are at their jobs throughout the day do not have to take off for a doctor’s visit and spend a few hours getting to and from the clinic. Lastly, college students no longer have to switch health care providers to someone in their college town if they’re unable to come back home for a visit.”

“Another thing I’ve been noticing is that it’s great for parents because they don’t have to bring their kids in with them just because they’re not feeling well or need a follow-up, and they don’t have to worry about getting a babysitter or someone to watch their kids,” Ko adds. “It’s also been helpful for people who depend on others for transportation to their appointments.”

 

So, how does it work? 

Getting started on a Virtual Visit is quick and convenient, using technology you most likely already have and use in your everyday life. You can use iPhone or Android devices, iPads, tablets, laptops, and computers as long as they have a working camera and microphone. If you’re saying, “but I’m not tech savvy” while reading this, don’t worry — the technology used by Texas Health has been designed so that anyone can use it. But if you are having trouble, you can reach out to your provider’s office for assistance.

Once scheduled for a Virtual Visit, you will receive an email to utilize Texas Health MyChart’s eCheck-In. This is the digital version of the paperwork you might normally fill out in the office when you’re waiting to see your provider.

“As far as paperwork goes, it’s still the same as if you were to come in, except now you’re doing it digitally,” Ko adds. “Consent forms and questionnaires are provided to the patient the day prior via their patient portal, and if you’re a new patient, you still have to fill out new-patient questionnaires and your medical history, which we review during the visit.”

After the eCheck-In process, you will receive an email confirmation or text invitation before your scheduled appointment.  The confirmation email and text invitation will include links to initiate the virtual visit at the scheduled time.

Despite the digital format, Ko adds that the visit isn’t much different than one you’d have in the office. 

“From the standpoint of reviewing your medical history, seeing what medications you’re currently taking, and asking you about what’s going on, the Virtual Visit is no different than if I saw you in-office,” Ko explains. “Obviously there are physical limitations, but we work with what we have available. Typically, I’ll ask the patient if they have a scale, thermometer,  a blood pressure cuff, and a pulse oximeter device and to report those readings to me. Having a blood pressure cuff is really helpful because it can also show us heart rate. The pulse oximeter device, which measures the amount of oxygen in your blood, can be good to know, especially if you’re reporting a cough. That mixed with what I can physically see makes it an informed visit.”

That being said, Ko adds that once he chats with a patient virtually, if he deems an in-person visit necessary or he feels the situation is emergent, he can direct the patient to the local emergency department or set up an office visit for further evaluation.

 

What are some conditions or circumstances that can easily be resolved via telehealth, and what requires an in-person visit? 

“Telehealth visits are a great option for visits that address mental health concerns, COVID-19 exposures, birth control counseling, smoking cessation, obesity management, and other medical needs that do not require a detailed examination of a physical condition,” Zuberi says. 

“We still see a good amount of patients who have skin issues or bladder infections, sinus infections, cough, sore throat — routine stuff,” Ko adds. “If you’re a patient who mainly comes in for follow-ups and medication refills, and you’re not experiencing any issues, you can skip the office visit now and address those needs via a Virtual Visit as well.” 

Patients who require routine blood work before seeing their physician still have the option to have a virtual consultation after they’ve had their labs drawn, whether that be at their physician’s office or their preferred testing location.

“If a patient is really having difficulty breathing or says they have chest pain, those are things that need to be physically evaluated right then and there in person,” Ko explains. “A prolonged or severe headache can be a tricky symptom to address via Virtual Visit as well, just because a headache can present in a lot of different ways and with a lot of different conditions, so that’s something that is better suited for an in-person visit. Also, we are not currently providing annual wellness exams via telehealth — that is something that you will need to come into the office for.” 

 

Do you think telehealth will be here to stay even after the pandemic is over? 

“I absolutely believe that these types of visits will not only stick around, but rather be preferred by consumers due to their efficiency and effectiveness,” Zuberi says. 

“In a weird way this has been great because before COVID-19 I never would have really considered Virtual Visits,” Ko adds. “But now I think it’s great for certain issues and it’s a nice addition to my practice and for all medical practices that are utilizing it, so I think it’s something that will stay.”

To learn more about Virtual Visits, FAQs and how to access specific platforms, please visit TexasHealth.org/About-Texas-Health/Virtual-Visits

Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician that’s appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/FindaProvider today.

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