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COVID-19 Pushes Kansas City Doctors To Switch To Online Checkups

Dr. Craig Dietz
Melissa Goslee
KC Care Health Center
Dr. Craig Dietz, the chief medical office at KC Care Health Center, uses a computer to meet with a patient.

Medical offices are being pulled out of fax machine era and into the age of telemedicine as people stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed shopping, eating and socializing in fundamental ways, but health care may be changing even faster as doctors adopt telemedicine.

The method, which involves doctors and patients connecting by phone or video instead of in-person visits, can slow the spread of coronavirus, but it also carries other advantages for both patients and doctors. Some medical professionals think the rise of telemedicine will outlast the pandemic and go on to transform primary care.

“I view this as a real sea change,” says Dr. Craig Dietz, the chief medical officer at KC Care Health Center, a safety net health care provider.

If Dietz is seeing a patient today, he’s likely doing so by phone or video connection and not a traditional office visit. In one month, KC Care has gone from doing almost no telemedicine to primarily doing telemedicine.

A leap forward

Health care providers primed for the change are seeing explosive growth, driven by the pandemic. A company called Teladoc, which specializes in telemedicine, has seen its stock market value spike about 75% this year.

“The patients like it right now because many, many of them are scared and don't want to come out, especially into a health care setting, right now,” says Dietz.

Avoiding the new coronavirus may be top of mind for both patients and doctors, but telemedicine has other advantages. A phone or video call takes less time than going to the doctor’s office and the usual time spent waiting. It also eliminates the need for transportation.

“From a patient perspective, it’s very helpful. From a health care business perspective, it’s also helpful because right now, telecare visits are billable,” says Doug Day, the chief marketing and development officer at KC Care.

Telemedicine is suddenly lucrative — a big change. Day says that until last month, Medicare and Medicaid paid only about a dime on the dollar for telemedicine compared to an in-person office visit. Now, there’s no difference in fees.

A technological upgrade

The federal government has offered money to help clinics prepare for telemedicine and eased regulations that previously had bogged down virtual house calls.

“It took this crisis to kind of kick us in the keister and get going on technology that some of the other businesses, Amazon and the food delivery folks, have already been doing this for several years,” says Dietz.

Telemedicine has limped along for decades, accounting for less than one of ever 100 visits to the doctor. Now, Dietz says some doctors in his office want to devote their entire practice to the method.

“One of the things that we're seeing across the board at this moment of crisis is that trends that were playing out over the course of years or decades are now happening right at once,” says Jamie Metzl, a technology futurist and advisor the World Health Organization.

Metzl says switching to telemedicine will fundamentally change health care. He envisions a future where virtually everyone will be able to monitor body temperature, blood pressure and oxygen levels at home.

That data would be shared and analyzed using artificial intelligence. Those programs would help manage patients’ health and inform doctors from afar about potential problems — possibly predicting a pending heart attack.

“Our health care is going to be something that's less episodic, that you get health care once every six months or once every year when you go to see your doctor, and it’s going to be more ongoing,” says Metzl.

That next level of telehealth could make it easier to make a diagnosis or keep chronic conditions in check, but it also could push a lot of very personal information into the ether. Those privacy issues still need to be sorted out.

For now, health care professionals say that telemedicine is the prescription for fighting the pandemic. For safety net providers such as KC Care, it’s just in the nick of time.

Day points to a second crisis that is about to hit — more than 16 million newly unemployed and largely uninsured Americans who need health care.

“The numbers are so big…they don't even seem real to me,” laments Day.

Those freshly uninsured people are likely to swamp area public health clinics later this year, and most of them will happen online or over the phone.

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