Telehealth – or telemedicine – in general is witnessing a zenith since COVID-19 initially hit as patients and providers minimized in-person care to limit potential exposure to the virus. However, telehealth has a well-rooted place in healthcare, even if largely untapped for its full potential prior to the pandemic.
Since March 2020, telehealth visits have exponentially increased, and telehealth is becoming commonplace as more patients and providers adopt this platform of medical care. A range of medical specialties, including radiology, have expanded this telecare capabilities with more virtual care visits conducted remotely with higher “vrtual” patient satisfaction levels than in the past. In the COVID-19 environment, the benefits are tremendous as telehealth provides a safer alternative to in-person care when appropriate, greater access to medical care when travel is restricted and flexibility when scheduling.
However, there are challenges. For providers, sustainable reimbursement models are needed, reliability in connected medical devices managed by patients are required and a new mode of patient interaction is necessary with virtual patients. For patients, the challenges are also present. In-person visits are still preferred, complete trust in a “virtual visit” is still lagging and there are technology gaps with internet access and bandwidth in some communities.
Radiology, specifically, has seen a tremendous increase with more remote reading being conducted as radiology department and practices embrace radiology for continued operations during the pandemic. However, radiologists have long used teleradiology platforms. For nearly 30 years, remote reading has been adopted by some health systems and practices, leading to increased access to subspecialty resources and around-the-clock coverage. Until the pandemic took hold, teleradiology took a distant second place to the traditional models of a centralized reading room operation within most health systems.
Covid-19 has forced a change on radiology. For nearly nine months, the explosive growth of teleradiology has been apparent. From greater safety protocols to efficiency that results in quicker final reads in many cases, teleradiology has benefits.
The transition was not overly difficult. Technology was already in place before the pandemic that could support a remote reading environment and many subspecialists were used to providing off-hours support in a distanced environment. Those radiology practices with already established teleradiology processes, cutting-edge reading platforms and a staff of highly trained subspecialists available were well ahead of the curve. Now is the time to look at unique radiology models that take advantage of a hybrid approach of remote and onsite radiologists, an increased access to subspecialists and a highly agile and collaborative reading platform.
Teleradiology may be here to stay after the pandemic. Putting the pieces together now and allowing for flexibility with innovative staffing, modeling and technology will position most health systems and practices today for the future.