By Dr. Ari Bernstein

In recent decades, telehealth has expanded gradually. For years, medical providers expected to see a rapid expansion in the field of telehealth. But, until the pandemic, this turning point never came.

COVID-19 has changed the playing field forever. Almost overnight, many doctors have shifted their practice setup, providing mainly telehealth services. Some may be looking forward to the day patients can safely return to the office. However, many providers are enjoying the convenience of virtual visits. Only one question remains: does telehealth provide the in-depth care our patients need?

Myself and other doctors already know that telehealth has many advantages. Virtual visits cut down on travel time for patients and result in less paperwork for medical practices. Telehealth patients in many cases preregister for their visit and send digital files. That cuts down on the amount of work staff performs before and after each visit.

Telehealth also has a powerful impact on the doctor-patient relationship. Providers have often worried that patients might feel uncomfortable with virtual visits. With some demographics, the fear was warranted. Many patients balked at the idea of telehealth. Patients with limited technological experience were especially slow to sign on.

But the pandemic gave these demographics the push they need to get started. Now, many patients have found unexpected benefits to telehealth.

Patients Report High Levels of Satisfaction with Telehealth Visits

One study published by Mayo Clinic Proceedings reported that 85-95% of patients were “satisfied” with their telehealth visit. Patients seemed to enjoy video-based visits that allow them to see their provider. More than 30% reported that their visit helped “build rapport” with their provider.

Doctors have often worried about how telehealth will affect the doctor-patient relationship. The results of this study are heartening. The study supports the idea that close relationships can be achieved through telehealth. Doctors can build a strong relationship with patients, even with no prior in-person visits.

For years, we have treated telehealth merely as a “good enough” option. We accepted that telehealth may not be “as good” as an in-person visit. It was only a stopgap measure for patients who couldn’t make it to a doctor’s office. But recent studies and patient surveys call that assumption into question.

Patients report high levels of satisfaction with their telehealth visits. They enjoy the shorter wait time compared to in-person visits. They also treasure the opportunity to see their doctor’s face through virtual visits.  Even with short virtual visits, patients are likely to report a positive rapport with their provider. They typically feel their doctor spent an appropriate amount of time with them.

One expert has suggested that telehealth may be superior to office visits in a surprising way. Strange as it may seem, virtual visits may offer more face-to-face time. During office visits, we’re often turned away from patients as we type at a computer or take notes. With telehealth, we’re free to make steady eye contact with patients. As a result, our patients feel that their concerns are taken seriously.

Looking Ahead to the Future of Telehealth

Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of providers have expanded their telehealth services. It’s time to take stock and consider which patients would benefit most from these services in the years ahead.

Patients with chronic health conditions are ideal candidates for telehealth. These patients often need weekly or monthly appointments. Regular office visits can be a burden for them. Telemedicine visits help save time and money while protecting their long-term health.

Like all patients, they depend on their doctor for guidance. With telemedicine, we can rest assured that these patients will get to “see” their doctors. Providers can use virtual visits to continue building a trusting, open relationship.

Patients in rural or high-poverty areas can also benefit greatly from telemedicine. Unfortunately, a lack of infrastructure can prevent these patients from accessing telehealth. Their area may lack high-speed internet. Patients themselves may lack devices with video capabilities. Before these patients can join the telehealth revolution, they need support and advocacy.

The pandemic is bound to change many parts of our society. A global shift toward telehealth is just one of many changes COVID-19 has brought. As we consider the benefits of telehealth, patient well-being must remain a priority. We must focus on reaching out to all patients, ensuring that everyone has access to these tools.