By Joyce Reingold
As COVID-19 began its aggressive spread and stay-at-home orders followed, cellphones went from being necessary, sometimes intrusive devices to becoming virtual lifelines. Friends and family members took to voice and video to pierce isolation and diminish anxiety — checking in, catching up and lifting spirits.
Doctors and mental health professionals quickly joined that virtual support network. Insurance providers like Florida Blue and Aetna offered telephone and video health care visits as a benefit prior to the pandemic. But with the coronavirus public health emergency declaration on Jan. 31, Medicare moved to expand its coverage of telehealth services for the duration of the emergency. Other insurance companies and health care providers followed suit.
Now, even as elective surgeries have resumed and access to medical offices is widening, telemedicine may well be part of the new normal.
That would suit Sara Greene just fine. While her doctors’ offices were closed, the Boca Raton woman said she had several productive telehealth visits, including one with her dermatologist to discuss a rash.
“It was basically, OK, here’s my issue,” Greene said. “She said, ‘Turn the camera around and let me take a look at it.’ Then she goes, ‘All right, what have you got in your medicine cabinet?’ OK, let’s go look. So, we went to the medicine cabinet and she saw what creams and stuff I had, and she said: ‘OK, use that one.’ It was that simple.”
For Greene, coordinator for the Department of Biomedical Science at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at FAU, telehealth’s time saving is part of its appeal.
“I absolutely would continue to use it. For someone who works full time like me, to take an hour and a half off to go to a doctor’s appointment that’s going to take me five minutes, is a pain in the neck,” she said.
FAU Medicine’s primary care practice stepped into telehealth — diagnosing and treating nonemergency conditions — for the first time in March, said Dr. Leonard Berkowitz, lead physician. The practice maintained office visits only for patients with conditions that would be difficult to manage with virtual care, he said.
“I think what we’ve learned from this experience is that there are definite advantages to telemedicine. For someone who might have transportation issues, they’re able to be seen right from their own home. Also, for someone who might have a medical condition where they may not want to be exposed to other patients sitting in a waiting room,” he said.
“We’ve really covered a lot of the common areas that we treat in primary care: diabetes and hypertension management, rashes and skin conditions, sore throats, respiratory infections, and strains and sprains. We’ve also been dealing with mental health issues as well, like anxiety and depression. It’s been a very stressful time for a lot of patients.”
Ocean Ridge psycho-therapist Mya Breman welcomes the telehealth coverage expansion for just that reason. She sees, and hears, the anger, fear, anxiety and grief the pandemic is generating and wants people to find the support they need.
“I don’t think people are reaching out the way they do in normal times. And that’s a shame because now, more than ever, they should be reaching out,” she said.
“What you need is someone to talk this out with. And I think a best friend who knows how to listen is fine. But they have their issues, too. So, I think a practitioner, a professional, is now even more essential because you need someone who’s really going to listen, be rational, be on your side and really respond to your individual needs. You know … someone who is there for you 100%.”
But, as people meet up on Zoom or reach out by phone, Breman offered a meaningful way we can offer support.
“I think the main thing is to validate each other’s feelings because we’re all in this together. And it’s normal that we’re all feeling these things, whether it’s gee, I’m really happy to get off the Ferris wheel, or, oh, I’m so miserable. So, find people that can validate you and say you’re not crazy; it’s very normal to feel whatever it is that you’re feeling.”
Breman began offering telephone psychotherapy sessions many years ago, to serve clients who live across the country and around the world. She has since added video sessions but leaves the choice to the client.
“Telehealth really is very effective,” she said. “If you trust your therapist, there’s not much difference between telehealth and face-to-face, in person.”
“Obviously, telemedicine was here before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Berkowitz said. “But I think doctors are curious to see what role it will have afterwards. I would not be surprised if it’s a part of doctors’ practices moving forward. What part of it remains to be seen.”
Joyce Reingold writes about health and healthy living. Send column ideas to email@example.com.