Ask 69-year-old Barton Colin how worried he is about the coronavirus, and you'll hear that he's terrified. The retired California pool technician has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). As such, he's considered at high risk for complications from the coronavirus and is following the advice of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and his physician by staying put in his home.
But a week ago, he began experiencing a flare-up of his COPD that left him waking up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. He realized that he needed to see his physician but was scared. “If I'm this bad now, if I come down with the coronavirus, it would kill me,” he says. “It's a sobering reality to be so sick that you desperately need the doctor but are too scared to go in."
Fortunately, when Colin called his physician's office at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, the office was able to offer reassuring news: It had just unveiled a telemedicine program that would allow him to check in with him for a virtual visit.
On Friday, he did just that, chatting with Michael Hochman, M.D., for about 20 minutes about his symptoms. Despite a bad connection — “I just had a tiny little picture of him, but he could see me,” Colin says — Hochman was able to get a good grasp of his patient's symptoms and prescribed both an antibiotic (shown to reduce the risk of a flare-up) and a steroid (to treat inflammation that worsens symptoms). “It was much friendlier and not as stressful as having to drive 90 minutes and sit in a waiting room with other potentially sick people for what amounts to a 15-minute doctor visit,” Colin says. “What usually takes an entire afternoon was done in 20 minutes."
Scenarios like Colin's are fast becoming the new norm, especially for older adults. Over the last couple of weeks, Hochman's practice has been calling all patients scheduled for wellness and follow-up visits to see if they can convert them to virtual checkups instead. “What we want to do is avoid anyone coming into clinic unnecessarily,” explains Hochman, director of the Gehr Family Center for Health Systems Science and Innovation at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Over the last three years, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has encouraged the rise of telemedicine by allowing doctors to bill for their time talking to patients over the phone and doing video chats to help triage medical issues. But for the most part, this has been limited to patients who traditionally have a harder time gaining access to physicians, such as those who live in rural areas.