I had lunch with an old friend today and was surprised to learn that he has engaged with a telehealth client. Although he’s a database guy at heart, he’s also got a mind for developing solutions, and that’s how he wound up in the space.
He’s working for a group that is developing chatbot technology for health systems that want to incorporate asynchronous visits into their offerings. Rather than just script out various scenarios, however, they’re working to leverage existing data to design responses and offer care to patients, so I was intrigued. Right now they have some flexibility since they aren’t billing for the service (it’s being offered as a perk of being a patient in the practice) and don’t have to worry about checking boxes for claims and billing. It will be interesting to see where things go.
Telehealth is definitely at the forefront of many organizations’ strategic plans. Whether you’re a dedicated telehealth vendor or a practice looking at it as a solution to reduce revenue leakage, if it’s not part of your plan, you need to be thinking about it.
Physicians are looking at telehealth as a way to improve their work-life balance. Although many have been doing the equivalent of after-hours visits for free for decades, they’re now looking to be paid for their services and compensated for their time away from family (or away from sleep, in many cases).
Patients are also highly interested in telehealth from a convenience standpoint, although they’re not always well versed in whether the services are going to be covered. I’ve seen some backlash from patients concerned about being billed for a visit that they didn’t really consider to be a visit, since in the past they had talked to their physician after hours for free. There will definitely need to be education on what services are truly telehealth vs. phone calls after typical office hours.
As a physician who has started to deliver telehealth visits, I’ve found it challenging. You have to use different skills than you might in a face-to-face encounter, even if video is enabled. There are subtle differences in the interaction, and I feel like I’m drawing a lot on my experience as a physician in making sure I’m not missing anything.
As residency programs issued their new graduates at the end of June, I’ve heard of several new grads that are going straight to telehealth without ever having had a face-to-face practice. I remember how uncertain I was as a new grad in solo practice and didn’t have colleagues to bounce things off of. I would think that feeling would be magnified for a new grad, especially if their residency program didn’t really prepare them for telehealth. I don’t think there are that many programs that do, at least not in family medicine. If there’s any mention of telehealth, it’s as an adjunct to the traditional physician-patient relationship, not as a standalone.
Physician specialty organizations are eager to push back at the idea of standalone telehealth. The American Academy of Family Physicians recently highlighted a study about the value of the physical exam. The group describes the physical examination as “central to the relationship between physician and patient for millennia,” but notes recent “skepticism about tis role in patient care.” Researchers looked at a very small (16) set of family physicians to understand how they perceived physical examination experiences and what those physicians identified as objective and subjective benefits of the exam as part of patient care. Some described the actual examination as critical, with one saying that providers who don’t conduct exams are not good doctors. Others said they used the exam to confirm or disprove their suspicious after discussing the history of the present illness. One physician said there was an expectation to perform an exam, and therefore doing it helped build the relationship.
I have a different take on exams after staffing the World Scout Jamboree. Our exams there were entirely dictated by physician preference and the patient’s presentation, with no consideration given to billing, body systems, or bullet points. Some of our patients were healthy teens with self-limited problems that dictated a minimal exam, while others were diagnostic dilemmas that required more.
On the world stage, at least in that environment, I don’t think that doing more vs. less made a difference to the patients. One of my Swedish colleagues at the Jamboree noted that physicians there do a minimal exam. The focus is more about sitting down and talking through things rather than the laying on of hands, at least in his experience.
The study authors also note the emotions felt by physicians during the physical exam, especially when assessing sick patients. They also reveal their own emotions by saying that “we should not dismiss physical examination as nostalgia” in favor of technology.
I suspect that physicians that perform minimal exams in the face-to-face setting are doing so because it’s clinically appropriate. I too often see people examining unrelated body parts just out of habit or because they think they need to, regardless of whether it will affect the care plan. This is difficult to address when precepting students, but an important topic as we look at evidence and data-driven approaches to care.
I had a teacher once who insisted that no physical exam was complete without a rectal exam. He legitimately expected the interns to perform that exam on every single inpatient. Several of us refused, citing the odds of finding an incidental rectal cancer as completely out of balance with the invasive nature of the procedure and the discomfort caused to patients. That’s an extreme example, but I also see students and new grads that examine thyroid glands on every patient, just because it’s habit and regardless of the chief complaint.
Mysticism and romanticization of the exam aside, sometimes you just don’t need to see the patient, let alone examine them, and it’s entirely possible to deliver quality care without laying on of hands. That’s going to be difficult for many audiences to accept.
Pediatricians are also coming out with concerns about telehealth, particularly regarding over-prescription of antibiotics. That’s not been my experience as a telehealth provider, where the degree of antibiotic stewardship is highly visible and frankly much more strict than my face-to-face practice. I’m sure there are bad actors out there, but painting everyone with the same brush isn’t ideal. I also see plenty of traditional family medicine docs who call out a Z-Pack for upper respiratory infections even if the infection is most likely viral. I see those patients in the urgent care setting when they complain that their antibiotics didn’t work, and get to spend plenty of time counseling them on the differences between bacteria and viruses and exactly why their antibiotics didn’t work.
It’s important to also note that not all telehealth is direct to consumer. Some services are offered as part of a traditional practice, others are arranged by an employer, and still others are funded by insurance companies and other payers looking to keep costs down. It’s a complex solution that isn’t one size fits all and doesn’t always fall under similar models. The only thing I know for sure is that telehealth isn’t going away anytime soon.
How aggressively does your organization track antibiotic stewardship? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.