Telehealth is Now a Fact. Do Clinicians Know How to Use It?
The global COVID epidemic turned life on its head in a variety of ways in 2020 and 2021, but nowhere more than in the realm of conducting business online that was previously done in-person. From school to meetings to healthcare, people all over the globe transferred their interactions onto the computer, laptop, or phone.
There appears no question that the waning of the crisis will not result in a return to pre-COVID arrangements. The shift to remote education and health care was already underway before the virus was unleashed. COVID has demonstrated the advantages and shortcomings of these practices and the accommodations necessary to maximize their potential.
Telemedicine, for one, will be a permanent fixture in ordinary health care going forward.
“Telehealth offers the opportunity to serve people where they are when it is convenient to them,” says Dr. Beth Sundstrom, an Associate Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston who is leading a research project on the use of telehealth for women in rural South Carolina. “It is going to be successful in increasing access to healthcare services and thus decreasing healthcare disparities.”
Telehealth as an adjunct, not a replacement
The telemedicine company Medici has identified 15 best uses for telemedicine. Broadly, they involve filling and managing prescriptions, managing chronic conditions, and monitoring patient progress. By employing remote video hookups, diabetic patients who have avoided acute setbacks, for example, do not need to travel to a clinic or doctor’s office for their physician to monitor their condition.
This will particularly aid rural residents whose closest specialists might be an hour or more away. Elderly and low-income patients can conveniently visit the local library, county office building, or anywhere with a telehealth hookup rather than make the trip to a distant medical facility.
Healthcare organizations have tacitly recognized the sudden telehealth boom, according to the educational consulting firm EAB. In 2020, demand for professionals with telehealth skills increased about 14% monthly, an eightfold spike over the previous year.
The demand for telehealth-literate clinicians exploded abruptly last year and will continue to increase as telehealth – and other online technologies – becomes a common adjunct to in-person health care. So, are we educating today’s healthcare practitioners on the finer points of its use?
Telehealth education at MUSC
The Lowcountry appears to be more advanced than many communities in that regard, though still with some room for improvement. MUSC has since 2014 operated a Center for Telehealth and established telehealth services in schools, prisons, and elsewhere. It has also created the state’s first network for telehealth education.
Courses are available to students in all six colleges on the MUSC campus instructing them in the many aspects of telehealth. Future physicians, nurses, therapists, other health professionals, scientists, and administrators can graduate with a good grasp of the telehealth fundamentals.
“That doesn’t mean they will arrive on the job without needing additional training, but at least they will understand the concepts of telehealth and where they can find additional info,” says Dr. Ragan DuBose-Morris, Telehealth Education Manager at the Center for Telehealth and an associate professor, Academic Affairs Faculty at MUSC.
DuBose-Morris says the Medical University also offers continuing education to healthcare providers to acquaint them with new applications and establish best practices.
Telehealth education online
Education consultant EAB asserts the current need for inexpensive, non-credit certificate courses to keep professionals competitive in the evolving labor market without re-enrolling in full degree programs. Lowcountry colleges have yet to make this available, but telehealth.org offers a series of online telehealth courses that count for continuing education credits.
One of telehealth.org’s courses covers the basics of clinical, technical, legal, and ethical tele-practice and is designed for hospitals, agencies, or clinical staff. More in-depth courses are aimed at decision-makers who require in-depth, practical, and actionable telehealth training.
The Global Health Access Institute offers a pair of three-day courses on telemedicine that also provide CE credit. Some colleges, including Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and Cornell University in Ithaca, NY do the same. Instruction covers such diverse topics as trouble-shooting technical challenges, and lighting, presentation, and body language. Johns-Hopkins offers six training modules on their website demonstrating how to perform ENT, chest, and abdominal exams via telemedicine. It also includes a module for patients.
Because these trainings are virtual, participants can take them from home, wherever that may be.
Some professional organizations have also responded to the demand for crash courses to keep pace with telehealth practice and regulatory changes. During the COVID epidemic, states suspended reimbursement restrictions for telemedicine services.
More information about telehealth can be found at https://www.scetv.org/news/telehealth.
Adding telehealth good for patients and providers
Incorporating telehealth services into the provision of health care will dramatically improve access to and convenience of care for patients. Dr. DuBose-Morris says it is also changing the options for practitioners.
“You want to be a doctor? You can now practice in a rural part of South Carolina without feeling isolated through connectivity with your colleagues,” she said. “I had a pharmacy graduate come back and say they thought they would work in a CVS but discovered they could work in a family practice because of telehealth.”