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The Irony of Virtual Medicine

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I never considered practicing virtual medicine. I had all kinds of concerns about the wisdom of treating people without seeing them face to face. 

But social distancing has forced medical professionals to be creative in caring for patients.  Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, COPD, and heart disease still need to be managed. Their effects on patients won’t wait for the pandemic to be over. And patients with these underlying conditions are most at risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19, so social distancing is especially important for them.

Enter the widespread adoption of virtual visits. Virtual visits can be done via video on our patient portal, or on a smartphone through a HIPAA-compliant, secure app called Doximity, which is an online networking service for medical professionals. The former is preferable, because clearer seeing and hearing are vital to good human communication and patient care. But the latter is easier for people who are uncomfortable with technology. It’s as simple as clicking on a text sent by the doctor to your smart phone, then clicking on a link to accept the visit. It’s just like FaceTiming: Just like that, you’re connected virtually to your doctor and care team.

Here is the irony: As I do more virtual visits, I realize that I’m actually getting to know my patients a little better, because I’m allowed into their world.

I’ve met their furry friends sitting next to them on the couch. I was given a virtual tour of one patient’s beautiful 30 acres with a natural spring. We actually had the entire visit in the woods.   I’ve met my patients’ children and other family members. I met a patient’s husband as he helped her point the camera to her injured foot. I’ve seen people in their work environments.

All of these virtual moments prompted me to ask people more about their lives and the things that are near and dear to their hearts. These virtual visits were devoid of some of the barriers that are present when patients walk into my sterile office. The formidable white coat is gone, and both the patient and the doctor are more at ease.  As we talk about their lives, I feel more comfortable sharing bits about my own, and the human connection is deepened.

For a family doc, this is good stuff. I went into primary care to get to know my patients and make a difference in their lives. Relationships are an integral part of that. How surprising and wonderful that technology has helped foster this connection!

Virtual medicine is here to stay. Face-to-face visits are still preferable—and, of course, annual exams and procedures can only be done in person. But here are some of the things we can take care of on a virtual visit, including:

  • Hypertension. It helps if the patient has a blood pressure cuff at home and can record several readings in preparation for the visit.
  • Diabetes. Blood sugar readings are helpful.
  • Upper respiratory illnesses. A home temperature reading is helpful.
  • Urinary tract infections. 
  • Mental health concerns.
  • Dermatological issues like rashes and moles.
  • Sprains and strains.
  • Medication reviews. It’s helpful for patients to have their medication bottles in hand.

If you do need to come into the office, you should be assured that we have put procedures in place to maintain social distancing. We are sanitizing every room between patients, just as we always have—and, when possible, allowing each room to air out between appointments. Patients are handed a mask if they don’t have one, and their temperatures are checked at the door.

For now, all people with upper respiratory conditions who need to be seen in person are referred to the COVID triage clinic for evaluation and treatment. This lowers the possibility of COVID-19 in our primary care offices. Overall, I am convinced that visiting your doctor’s office is safer than going to the grocery store.

I want people to know that they don’t have to be afraid to see their doctor. If appropriate, you can have a visit in your own living room, where you’re quarantined and safe. Chances are, you and your doctor will get to know each other a little better—and both will come away from the experience a little more enriched in their relationships and with something to smile about. 

Dr. Meg Fitzsimmons is a family practice and primary care physician at Hancock Family Medicine in McCordsville. For information or to make an appointment, please call (317) 477-6400.

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