To support social distancing measures put in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19, many in-person healthcare visits have been replaced by telemedicine appointments over the past year. While the concept of telemedicine is not new, the technology to support virtual healthcare was not widely leveraged when its main value proposition focused on convenience. During the pandemic, however, when telemedicine contributed to public safety, telemedicine was adopted broadly, and institutions and clinics that had not before allocated resources to telemedicine infrastructure had good reason to do so.
When telemedicine took hold in 2020, many people - physicians and patients alike - worried that the physician-patient relationship would be adversely affected by the shift from in-person to electronic communication. Technology has indeed not always been viewed as fostering connection between provider and patient. For instance, with electronic health records, many physicians and patients dislike the need for physicians to spend time on computers, tablets, or other electronic devices during their visits rather than focus on their conversation with patients.
While there are some limitations to what can be achieved clinically through a telemedicine visit, physicians have recognized that there are also specific benefits to these types of visits that extend beyond the convenience and safety that have been proposed as rationale for utilizing telemedicine. For example, physicians can gather clues about a patient’s lifestyle through the observation afforded by a virtual visit. They can also often spend more time speaking with the patient and thus gather more information to help them understand the patient’s condition.
Given the number and extent of the benefits that have been realized through telemedicine amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of virtual healthcare visits is not likely to go away when the pandemic is over. Of course, there will always be value in in-person visits for certain types of examinations or procedures. Nonetheless, as future generations of healthcare providers are trained, it will be important to consider how we can endow them with specific skills to ensure that they get the most out of their telemedicine work should they see patients virtually. Given that telemedicine serves an important role in patient observation and in building rapport with patients, these are areas that budding healthcare providers should potentially focus on when thinking about how best to use telemedicine versus in-patient visits.