AUSTIN (KXAN) — The doctor is in — or on your computer screen, at least.
Experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) said telehealth technology has been in high demand over the last several weeks, amid concerns about coronavirus.
One type of this technology is “direct-to-consumer.” Here’s how it works: instead of sitting in a waiting room at your doctor’s office, you can video-call with a physician or specialist who will diagnose many of your symptoms remotely.
“Most people these days FaceTime, or Skype or Zoom,” Dr. Alexander Vo said. “It’s basically having a more in-depth conversation with your physician or care provider.”
Vo serves as Vice President, Telemedicine and Health Innovations at UTMB. He said this technology can help in stopping or slowing the transmission of infectious diseases or other sickness, by providing distance between the patient and clinician, or the patient and other people.
With more companies urging employees to work from home and local governments encouraging people to avoid contact with each other, everyone is looking for ways to avoid spreading disease.
“When it comes to telemedicine, it’s most important strength is to keep healthy people safe,” Vo said. “It allows patients to access clinicians and transmit reliable healthcare information while avoiding crowds and hospital settings where potential contamination could occur.”
He said telemedicine can also help people get access to specialists, or even just streamline someone’s care.
“At some point, if someone has a respiratory problem, someone may need to listen to their lungs,” Vo said. “But having an initial touch-point with that patient using telehealth to assess the symptoms will help direct whether that patient needs to come in or not.”
Austin start-up finds a ‘remedy’
As a mom of four kids, visits to the doctor’s office are hectic for Shelley Chan.
“Kids love to touch things, lick things, put things in their mouth,” Chan said, adding that germs in the waiting room are also a concern. “You’re exposing them to things, and when they’re so little, you don’t want to do that.”
Chan started using Remedy, a house-call service started by a local doctor.
“One, it’s super convenient,” Founder Dr. Jeremy Gabrysch said. “But one of the other things that makes it so great is when there are a lot of sick people out, you don’t have to go and expose yourself to all of those illnesses.”
Their team of clinicians will come to a patient’s home, or simply conduct an exam on a video call.
“We are actually recommending that folks who have a flu-like illness or something along those lines, use video first as a way to seek care,” Gabrysch said. “The last thing you want to do is be out in the community exposing people to that.”
He said they’ve definitely seen an increase in calls due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Gabrysch said Remedy takes insurance, and there’s no app or downloading required. Patients just book appointments online at their website.
They recently expanded to the Dallas-Forth Worth area, and Gabrysch said want to keep expanding.
Across the state
At UTMB, Vo said one of the main goals of telemedicine is reaching patients who are harder to reach, like people in rural communities.
“One of our missions is to provide care across the state,” Vo said. “We had to figure out how to leverage technology to do that.”
In 1994, they started their telemedicine program to provide health care for jail inmates, and then expanded from there.
Now, they focus on specialty care, and those exams are a more involved.
“Where there is equipment alongside a patient, and typically that equipment consists of electronic stethoscopes, otoscopes, various things that we call medical peripheral that allow the physician on the far side, the distant side, to examine the patient,” Vo said. “You need someone who is a medical professional on the other side to help navigate the equipment.”
However, when it comes to direct-to-consumer, he said they are coming out with medical peripherals that you can attach to your smartphone and allow some physical assessments to happen over the call.
“Even folks that have flu or common cold, this is a great way to assess them without having them be exposed to additional risk,” Vo said.
When it comes to COVID-19, he said at UTMB they are in “active preparation mode.”
“We are well known for infectious disease,” Vo said. “There has been a lot of preparation and planning for this.”
Telemedicine could get a boost from the federal government
Congress passed an $8 billion-dollar emergency spending package to tackle COVID-19, with a provision that lets Medicare providers extend telemedicine services to seniors regardless of where they live.