Telehealth is helping more people get surgical care

key takeaways

  • The researchers found that telemedicine increased access to surgical treatment for racial and ethnic minorities.
  • They suggest improvements are needed to increase digital access and literacy.
  • Surgical telemedicine can help reduce some barriers to care by eliminating the need for transportation and unnecessary trips to the hospital.

During the height of the pandemic, when non-essential surgeries were postponed to a later date, telemedicine could fill the need for in-person care. Now, new research shows that telemedicine can help increase access to surgical care, but some disparities remain.

From March 2020 to June 2020, Massachusetts restricted all non-essential elective surgeries and consultations, virtually changing some in-person appointments. To better understand how historically underrepresented surgical patients are using telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital took a deep dive into the data.

Using electronic health records of new patients seeking consultations in the hospital’s general and gastrointestinal surgery departments, researchers found that telemedicine increases access to surgical care for traditionally underrepresented surgical patients.

What is Telehealth: Definition, Uses, Benefits

Increase access to care

The study was divided into two phases. During Phase 1 (March 24-June 23, 2020), patients were observed when stay-at-home advice was in place and elective surgeries were suspended.

During this time, Brigham increased study participant access to telehealth by enrolling study participants into a patient portal system, distributing internet-connected devices, and integrating video platforms into electronic health records. 347 face-to-face and 638 virtual interviews were completed during this part of the study.

During Phase 2 (June 24-December 31, 2020), patients were observed when Massachusetts issued reopening guidelines, completing 2,922 in-person and 1,001 virtual visits.

How telemedicine is changing healthcare

“Black patients in Phase II used more virtual care than our white patients,” Gezzer Ortega, an instructor of surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and one of the study’s authors, told VigorTip.

Ortega believes that telehealth has increased access to historically underrepresented patients due to personal or cultural preferences, concerns about potential COVID-19 exposure during in-person clinic visits, and privacy concerns.

But Ortega and his team also observed differences in whether patients used video versus audio-only interviews. For example, “older, less educated (high school or below) and non-English primary language patients use video less than audio,” Ortega said.

The study found that Hispanic and Latino patients had more audio-only consultations than other racial and ethnic groups during the first phase. Latino patients accounted for 19.1% of audio-only interviews, while black patients accounted for 11.1%. White patients accounted for the majority of audio- and video-only visits.

These findings suggest that improvements can be made to improve digital access and literacy, such as increasing knowledge about using a mouse or keyboard, operating the Internet, and accessing email or secure links.

what does this mean to you

If your elective surgery is delayed, please maintain open communication with your healthcare provider to reschedule your appointment and report changes in symptoms. Virtual appointments can be a tool for you to get the care you need.

Why telehealth visits are important

With the vast majority of preoperative and postoperative care taking place online, telemedicine is a safe and convenient option for patients, said Dr. Karl Minges, interim dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences.

“This is especially true in rural or underserved areas where there are traffic issues, and it can take hours to complete a 15-minute appointment,” Mingus told VigorTip. Combined with avoiding unnecessary trips to the hospital, telehealth can save time and reduce the number of missed workdays.

However, for telemedicine to be effective, “it requires access to technology, broadband internet, digital literacy, health literacy, and other resources that can act as additional barriers to accessing surgical care, and these groups have been shown through There are differences in the chances and outcomes of surgical treatment,” Mingus said.

Understanding Telehealth with OB-GYN

move forward

Ortega said the purpose of the study is to inform health systems and policies about best practices for providing equitable access to surgical care.

“This study provides insights into how policies affect surgical care and how they can exacerbate or mitigate disparities that already exist,” he explained. “Analyzing the impact of our public health policies, local interventions and efforts to reduce disparities will guide us in making better decisions for the communities we aim to serve.”

Ortega and his team hope to continue this work by reducing language barriers in telehealth, providing additional resources to help patients navigate these platforms, and improving provider comfort with digital platforms.

“It’s almost impossible for health policy decisions to affect all patients in the same way, no matter how well-intentioned they are,” Ortega said. “We must challenge ourselves to assess the impact on health equity and make decisions that prioritize not only safety and public health, but equity and access for all patients, even during a crisis.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means that you may have updated information as you read this article. For the latest updates on COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus news page.