Physician-lawmaker: telehealth is here to stay

FILE - Elderly man seated on sofa making a distant video call.

BOUNTIFUL – Practicing medicine via telehealth technologies is the rule-of-thumb in the midst of a Coronavirus outbreak and the wave of the future, according to Dr. Ray Ward, a family physician and Utah lawmaker.

“I’m very certain that at least some of the changes brought about by our current use of telehealth methods will stick after this crisis is over,” Ward said April 11, during a video town hall meeting hosted by congressional candidate Katie Witt of Kaysville. “When things settle down, doctors will get more accustomed to practicing medicine via technology and so will everyone else.”

A graduate of Brigham Young University and the University of Washington, Ward practices out of the Cope Family Medicine clinic in Bountiful. He has been a member of the Utah House of Representatives since 2015, where he served on the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Witt said that Ward has been “in the frontlines of the battle against the Coronavirus” since mid-March. The doctor explained that two of his many patients have so far tested positive for the disease, one of whom has since passed away.

Like many Utah physicians, Ward has been doing his part to help slow the spread of the Coronavirus by limiting the number of patients coming to his clinic through the use of telehealth technologies.

“We’ve been trying to get telehealth going for years and years,” Ward explained. “But that effort has always been blocked by various bureaucracies. But all of that changed over the space of about a week in March.”

The state of Utah has been working toward the introduction of telehealth medicine since 2015, when the Utah Education and TeleHealth Network received a $2 million grant to expand access to broadband internet and telehealth technology. Utah is also part of the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which helps out-of-state providers more easily deliver virtual care to Utah patients.

But Utah has yet to pass a telehealth parity law, which would require private insurers to cover costs for telehealth services, as Medicaid already does.

Despite that lack of legislative support, the Intermountain Health Care and University of Utah health systems both offered telehealth services prior to the Coronavirus outbreak. But IHC reported that demand for virtual health support doubled in just the first week after statewide social distancing and self-isolation guidelines were imposed.

“Now, about 80% of our contact with patients (at Cope Family Medicine) is over an audio or video link,” Ward emphasized. “For those patients who have to be seen in person, as some still do, we’re walking out to the parking lot to do a ‘house call’.”

Using telehealth technology to visit with patients not only limits the potential Coronavirus exposure of patients and clinic staff, Ward said, but also provides better service in some cases.

“Of course, there are some patients that we still need to see in-person and always will” he acknowledged. “But there are some real long-term benefits to telehealth medicine for others.

“For patients living in nursing homes, for example, it would always have been nice not to have to require them to come here to our clinic. That’s just because it’s difficult for them to get up and dress and into a van to come over. Even when they get here, their memories are often so bad that we could really provide better care by talking to their care-givers back at the nursing home. That’s just one example where I think that we’ll be able to provide improved care in the future via telehealth by consulting with both the patient and their care-givers at the same time.”

In the meanwhile, Ward said that Utah physicians are learning the in’s and out’s of telehealth medicine on the fly under these unfortunate circumstances.

“Everything is pretty helter-skelter now,” he laughed, “because it’s sometimes challenging to make these audio and video connections. There’s a lot of new technology and applications that we’re trying to master. Sometimes we try one way to connect and when that doesn’t work, we try another. Sometimes we end up just having to talk over the phone.

“One way or another, we’re making it work for now … and this experience will be helpful in the future.”

But Ward was more cautious about making predictions when Witt suggested that telehealth medicine might also result in cost-savings for patients.

“When it comes to health care, you really never know what’s going to bring down prices,” he observed. “Health care is so complex and highly regulated. And so is the health insurance business. Given those factors, I’m not sure that the advent of telehealth will bring down prices. But I am sure that telehealth will improve service for our patients.”

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