Telemedicine helps Houstonians rebound and recover from the pandemic

As Houstonians try to rebound and recover during the pandemic, we're learning that changing the way we see our doctors can open up a whole new world of medical care. More patients than ever now turn to their smart phone or computer for their doctor's appointments.

Dean Dalton lives in Houston, but before COVID-19, could often be found in another country, as he owns a tour company. He never considered trying telemedicine, until it was his only choice during the pandemic.

"Most of the doctor's visits, when you stop and think about it, are just a matter of communication. It's true, there are times the doctor needs to poke you or look down your throat or whatever, they can do that with Zoom. But most things are just a matter of saying, ‘Here are my problems, here are my symptoms’, the doctor asks a few questions and says, ‘okay, I'll send the prescription out for you.’ That's the end of it," says Dalton.

He calls it a positive experience and has now tried it while out-of-state and has found it to be beyond convenient. His doctor at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic agrees.

"I think what we've learned here is that where it can be appropriately applied, how patients adapt to the technology, and then we have to be flexible. So if it is a condition that we can see virtually, let's recommend that first. If it needs to be in person, then come on in and we can safely see you," states Dr. Donnie Aga, the Medical Director of Healthcare Innovation at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.

Dr. Aga says he now uses telemedicine to treat acute illnesses, like a cold, bronchitis, or back pain. He also provides virtual chronic care for conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma.

Here’s how Kelsey-Seybold Clinic has been treating their 500,000 patients. Before the pandemic, 98% of patients were seen in-person, only 2% via telemedicine. Back in March, when Houston first shut down because of CO-VID 19, it flipped. They transitioned to 10% in-person and 90% virtually. Now it has leveled off to 75% in-person and 25% virtually.

Dr. Aga says doctors are usually able to spend even more time online with patients. Many hope to keep it virtual in the future. Valuable time's on the line, especially with typical traffic in Houston.

"The in-person visit is three and a half to four hours out of your day: between making an appointment and driving across town, check in and check out. A video visit is 15 minutes of your time, so it's a very efficient use," explains Dr. Aga. "Why bother driving, add to pollution and waste time? I don't see any downside to it. It's just a matter of setting it up. You have to get dressed, but only from the waist up. You don't have to put on your shoes and socks or get the car out of the garage," laughs Dalton.

Dr. Aga says about the only con would be for problems when your doctor needs to examine you.

"Things that are what I would say, located in the belly, so abdominal pain is hard to rule-out appendicitis through a virtual health visit. If you have a headache, you probably ought to come in, so we can check you out," says Dr. Aga.

You can also easily access doctors from all over the world, even surgeons. I caught up with spine surgeon, Dr. Ken Hansraj, with Nuvance Health in New York. He walked us through what it looks like when you're the patient.

"We can go right into your chart with you present and just document things. Your age, height, weight, sex, your complaints, and we can just go to work. You can watch us as we're doing it. You have full access," Dr. Hansraj explains.

He says he can diagnose problems and share medical results with his patients online.

"You can clearly see them, so we can show you MRI's and X-rays and show you surgical procedures very quickly," explains Dr. Hansraj.

Besides the convenience, doctors believe that many patients may still prefer the good old-fashioned human touch.

"We love seeing our nurse when we come for the visit, and those kind of things we have to try to balance and figure that out, but that's probably the largest negative. But I think the safety, the convenience, the high quality that you can get, and keeping out of the urgent care in the ER, which are really busy right now, all really outweigh that human touch factor," says Dr. Aga.

If you're impressed with how far telemedicine has come in the past few months, Dr. Aga says, just wait for the near future, as in just a year or two.

"You're at home, you have your Alexa device hooked up to your phone, which is also hooked up to your iWatch, which is monitoring your pulse. And then you have an electrical disturbance of your heart and Alexa says, ‘Hey, Melissa, I think there's something wrong with your heart’. And it goes into your My Chart, makes an appointment with the doctor or calls 911 for you, and automates all these things that are home detection devices and interacts with the healthcare community to get you healthcare very quickly," explains Dr. Aga. What a thought! He also believes even more insurance companies and employers will support telemedicine, because if often means fewer tests, making medical care more affordable.

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