Three Emerging Ways to Tap into Telemedicine

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By Dr. Donna O’Shea, Chief Medical Officer of Population Health, UnitedHealthcare

One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the wider adoption of virtual care, a trend that has staying power even as many people have returned to in-person appointments. In fact, 73% of people expect to access health care services virtually even after the pandemic ends.

While many people may think about telemedicine primarily as an alternative to in-person urgent care, technology is making it possible to access various health care services spanning routine, wellness and specialty. Importantly, virtual care has expanded from delivering care to people who are already sick, to helping prevent, detect and more effectively manage chronic conditions.

Virtual care may be appealing for a variety of reasons, including improved convenience, affordability and access, especially for the 46 million Americans who live in rural areas. As Wisconsin residents increasingly look to tap into technology to meet their health care needs, here are three emerging virtual care resources to consider:

Primary care. Primary care is a crucial part of helping people get or stay healthy. In fact, people with access to a primary care physician are more likely to receive high-value services, such as preventive screenings, and report better experiences compared to people without this type of care provider. Unfortunately, the number of Americans with a primary care physician has declined in recent years. To help reverse that trend, many local primary care physicians are now meeting with patients virtually, while some health plans have introduced options to help people establish and maintain an ongoing relationship with this type of care professional.

Physical therapy. For the 50% of U.S. adults affected by musculoskeletal conditions, such as back, knee or shoulder pain, physical therapy (PT) is often among the recommended initial treatments. With that in mind, some local physical therapists are now offering virtual appointments, allowing for education and coaching, and as a supplement for in-person care. When it comes to quality, a recent study confirms virtual PT was similarly as effective as traditional care for people rehabilitating after knee surgery. To make at-home PT support even more accessible, other programs use a smartphone’s front-facing camera and motion monitoring to provide people on-demand, 24/7 exercise feedback powered by artificial intelligence.

Dental care. If a toothache emerges at night or during the weekend, it may be difficult to know where to go for care. As a result, dental care ranks among the most frequently avoidable emergency room (ER) visits, despite the fact most ERs are not equipped to handle oral health issues. Virtual dental care may be able to help, offering people 24/7 access for advice and guidance to an appropriate setting for in-person care, such as a local dentist or a primary care physician. Some dentists and dental plans now offer virtual dental appointments, important resources given the connection between proper oral health and overall well-being.

As more and more people turn to technology to see or talk to health care professionals, these and other emerging virtual care options will play an increasingly important role in helping people get and stay healthy.