Thursday, May 07, 2020

Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you’ve probably found yourself craving personal interactions during this time of physical distancing. Many of us have turned to technology from telephones, to video chats and conference calls to stay connected with family and friends. These virtual interactions are a lifeline that allows us to experience some sense of togetherness but when it comes to your health, is there any substitute for a face-to-face with your doctor or healthcare provider?

The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us many things, such as exploring new ways of connecting with one another. One area that is evolving very quickly is healthcare. The public health emergency has forced us to adopt digital health technologies to a greater degree than ever before. Here’s what you need to know.

Healthcare Goes Virtual

The current crisis has caused a rapid expansion in the availability of many health care services via telehealth. This allows physicians and other health care providers to deliver services to their patients via phone or video. To protect older adults at a higher risk for COVID-19, Medicare lifted restrictions on telehealth in early March for the duration of the public health crisis. Providers, including doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers can now offer telehealth to patients in their homes. Now, older adults can avoid going to a doctor’s office or hospital where they would risk exposure to the virus.

Types of Remote Medicare Visits

Medicare has outlined three types of allowable remote healthcare visits:

  • Medicare telehealth visits: Patients may use telecommunication technology for office, hospital visits and other services that normally occur in-person. This requires the use of an interactive, internet connected audio and video capable device (in other words, not just an audio-only telephone) to facilitate real-time communication between provider and patient.
  • Virtual Check-Ins:Established Medicare patients may have a brief (5-10 minute) communication with practitioners via a number of communication devices including telephone or video.
  • E-Visits:  Established Medicare patients may have non-face-to-face patient-initiated communication with their doctors without going to the doctor’s office by using online patient portals.

While a number of commercial health plans and The Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospitals are allowing the use of audio-only phones for telehealth visits, Medicare is not. Only the second two options, which are limited to existing patients, allow for the use of a telephone.

Telehealth Access

The good news is that a recent Medicare poll found that nearly seven in 10 older adults (68%) have an internet-connected computer, smart phone or tablet in their homes that they could use to access telehealth. The remaining 32% of older adults without technology, unable to use video capability, or lack adequate, dependable internet service, will have to rely on check-ins and e-visits.

Virtual healthcare is something all Americans are adjusting to, not just older adults. The same Medicare poll found that only 11% of older adults reported using a device to talk by video to a doctor or health care provider in recent weeks but this is about the same rate as for younger adults (12% of those aged 30-49 and 11% of those aged 50-64). As stay-at-home orders extended, and research showing the severe adverse effects of social isolation and loneliness, Medicare beneficiaries need to connect easily with doctors, including mental health providers, such as therapists and social workers. Luckily, there are resources to help with this.

Virtual Health Resources

Have symptoms of COVID-19 but it is not an emergency?
The Remote Patient Monitoring Program utilizes Telehealth Services and Pandemic Health Workers (PHW) to provide virtual, in-home health and mental health services. This new program is available to anyone in the state regardless of whether they are insured. Pandemic Health Workers (PHWs) will digitally connect with patients who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and need to stay home or quarantine to protect themselves and others. Call the COVID-19 hotline at 833-673-5669. More information can be found here.

It’s important for everyone to keep in mind that urgent and emergent healthcare procedures will continue as scheduled in offices, clinics and hospitals. Anyone experiencing acute health problems should still go to their nearest hospital emergency room.

Need emotional support?
Call4Calm, The Illinois Department of Human Services’ free-of-charge emotional support text line, is for any residents experiencing stress or mental health issues related to COVID-19. Just text “TALK” (or “HABLAR” for Spanish) to 5-5-2-0-2-0, to speak with a mental health professional. You’ll receive a call from a counselor within 24 hours.

Resources for Veterans

If you are a military veteran and don’t have an internet compatible device, you can get an iPad through the VA Tablet Loan Program. The iPads allow veterans to communicate with their doctors from home using a video calling app, as well as enabling them to easily track and send relevant health data. Ask your VA healthcare provider for more information.

Need help using technology?

This website will help you learn to use your smart phone, computer or tablet. Find hundreds of tutorials on topics like smart phone basics, web cameras, video conferencing, email, and more.

Need more information on telemedicine

See this fact sheet


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