There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is testing our healthcare system.
Doctors and healthcare professionals on the front lines are being forced to make tough decisions every day. Emergency rooms are getting slammed. Patients are experiencing longer delays. And we’re all having to figure things out on the fly.
If you’ve been getting treatment for a painful musculoskeletal condition, you’re probably wondering: What if I need to see my doctor for chronic pain but don’t have coronavirus symptoms?
The good news is that new opportunities have opened up for patients and doctors. Also, as a private practice, we’ve been able to adapt to the changes to better serve our patients’ complex needs.
Let’s explore what’s possible if you’re a chronic pain patient who might be looking for some solutions so you can get back to maintaining your active lifestyle—even in the middle of this crisis.
What Has Changed
Moving forward, patients will be able to benefit from an important change that we recently learned about: the expansion of telehealth coverage for office, hospital and other medical services.
Many medical facilities, including ours, have already been doing “virtual check-ins.” But now Medicare is paying for telehealth so that a wide range of healthcare providers can work with patients during this health crisis.
This is a gamechanger because it means patients will be able to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to the doctor’s office or put themselves or others at risk. It also means that we as doctors will now have greater flexibility to treat our patients.
How Telehealth Benefits You
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what is telehealth and how it benefits you when you’re not able to see your doctor in-person.
First of all, telehealth is a very broad term. But it generally refers to the exchange of medical information from the doctor’s office to a patient through some form of electronic communication to improve the patient’s health.
This is typically done over the telephone or through face-to-face video conferencing.
Next, it’s important to understand that telehealth involves the use of technology, and there are some extra requirements if you’re a new patient. For established patients, all you need is your phone.
A new patient will need to have access to a computer, laptop, tablet or phone as well as a high-speed Internet connection. The device should be equipped with a video camera and microphone.
Also, because license restrictions have been waived, we can now provide services to patients who live in other states. For example, Dr. Tolbert’s practice mainly serves patients in the Greater Los Angeles area. But during the coronavirus pandemic, she can also do telehealth consultations with patients outside of California (make sure to tell your family members and friends!).
No matter what your situation, the good news for you is this form of technology is available to help people who need routine care during the health crisis. Telehealth gives us the ability to keep everyone safe while giving people access to the care they need.
Telehealth Has Some Limitations, Though
There also are some limitations. While it’s convenient to talk with your doctor from the comfort of your couch, we won’t have the ability to provide an accurate and detailed physical examination for you, which means we won’t be able to know everything that is going on with you.
Also, we understand that the Medicare requirement for new patients could be problematic for some people because not everyone has access to a computer equipped with a webcam and microphone.
Fortunately, at the Tolbert Center, we are looking into a very simple platform that is HIPAA-compliant and easy to use for our patients.
In the meantime, you’ll be pleased to know that we’re still seeing patients (virtually, of course, for most patients and in person when it’s absolutely necessary).
What This Means If You Need to See the Doctor
So how do we all adapt to this new reality? We’re reminded of several experiences we recently had at our facility.
About two months ago, we performed a regenerative medicine treatment on one of our patients who had been experiencing chronic ankle pain. She lives in Bakersfield, which is a 100-mile commute, and she was scheduled to come back to the office for a follow-up appointment.
But when we did a telehealth phone consultation with her, we were able to determine that the patient’s ankle was making a lot of improvement. So the patient was able to save some gas money and we were still able to do a consultation.
Another patient needed to see us because he suffers from severe sciatica pain. So we decided to do the appointment through FaceTime.
From the FaceTime appointment, Dr. Tolbert was able to determine that sciatica pain was not the cause of his discomfort. Our therapist was then able to put together a series of stretches for the patient, and this meant Dr. Tolbert did not have to perform an epidural spinal injection for the problem.
We’re also mindful that telehealth can’t replace the type of health care we can provide with an office visit.
We often see patients who have complex stories and who have been in pain for many years. Many have experienced failed surgeries and things have gone wrong with medications in the past.
So when a patient visits us for a consultation in the office, we often need to allow the patient to tell her story. By listening to the patient’s story, it might give us a hunch about a possible diagnosis.
The other issue that often comes up is that patients don’t always have the necessary medical records, studies or labs that we need.
Ultimately, we look at telehealth as a great opportunity to meet patients, hear their stories and put together a plan for healing. Then we can order the proper labs and tests that will help us create a personalized roadmap to wellness.
A second visit could be scheduled in-person. This is when we could actually perform a physical examination, musculoskeletal diagnostic ultrasound exam, review test results or provide a minimally invasive or non-invasive pain-relieving procedure, if necessary.
Bottom line: Telehealth will make it easier for us to serve more patients during the pandemic. With this new technology, we will be able to solve simple problems, provide medication and counseling, and demonstrate exercises that can help patients continue their programs at home. This empowers you as the patient so you can continue to be the center of your health care.