Doctors on Call: Study Shows Impact of Telemedicine during COVID-19

Global Pandemic Drives More Patients to Remote Visits

Telemedicine has been around for as long as people have been picking up the phone. While the demand for telehealth typically trends low, the novel coronavirus pandemic has necessitated more providers and patients to explore the delivery of healthcare via phone, video conferencing, or web-based platform.

Associate Professor Bree Holtz of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations recently set out to expand her ongoing study of telemedicine. Her goal is to assess people’s perceptions of telemedicine as COVID-19 continues to redefine human interaction—particularly in healthcare.

“What we do know is that no one wants to be sick and sitting in a waiting room,” said Holtz. “Providers are now given access to conduct telemedicine that considers patient privacy and insurance reimbursement, too. It’s been the perfect storm for the proliferation of telemedicine.”

Valued Connections

Holtz initiated her recent research in telemedicine with a small, self-funded study using a convenience sample. Her findings were recently published in a summer issue of Telemedicine and e-Health.

The study’s convenience sample was drawn from volunteer participants solicited through social media, email list serves, and connections from her work as affiliated faculty with MSU’s Health & Risk Communication Center. The sample included those who had used telemedicine pre-pandemic, and those who first used telemedicine during the pandemic. The study’s intent was to compare the two groups.

Holtz’s study suggests that most people perceive telemedicine as a satisfactory way to receive routine care. New users regard the service slightly different, mostly because their first use was necessitated by the pandemic. Those users, too, were more inclined to want to see their primary care provider in person compared to those who had used telemedicine before.

“Once people had experienced telemedicine, though, they were satisfied with it,” she said. “Most said they would continue to use it. That’s going to be a huge factor for an expanded level of service continuing post-pandemic.”

The study also supported the concept that telemedicine can help ensure continuity of care when access is limited or between in-person visits. Findings revealed that telemedicine could strengthen interpersonal connections between providers and patients, particularly when a patient feels more comfortable communicating from their home.

“There’s something to be said about having a patient communicate from a place where the stress is lower, instead of being surrounded by the pressure and stress that can come with office visits,” said Holtz. “Patients may be more willing to take a suggestion, or to open up more.”

Holtz said most of those surveyed put the need to communicate with their primary care provider above any potential privacy issues. Most trusted that their provider were using approved, secured platforms, and that confidentiality was assured.

“If you need to seek care, you will get the care,” she said. “Privacy comes in second.”

Need for Access

As the pandemic rolls on and more people are prompted to use telemedicine for annual check-ups and continuity of care, Holtz anticipates processes, systems and policy will evolve, and that access will improve.

“It’s hard to think we will be going back to the way it was,” she said. “The more people who use telemedicine, the more we will see it for routine appointments, prescription refills and other prescription reconciliations. Face-to-face medicine won’t disappear, though. The human touch and seeing a patient in person is still vitally important.”

Holtz said her small study inspired broader research with colleagues Kelly Hirko and Sabrina Ford, researchers in the MSU College of Human Medicine. The cross-collaboration will explore perceptions of telemedicine among economically disadvantaged groups in rural areas. The study is currently underway, with data being collected via a paper survey distributed through northern Michigan food pantries. Analysis is expected to start in the fall once the surveys are returned.

“My initial study recognized that not everyone has access to the technology or to affordable medical care,” she said. “The pandemic has highlighted even more the concerns about inequality in providing telemedicine services. That’s why additional research is important.”

By Ann Kammerer