By Waseem Ghannam, MD, MBA, MHSA, president, TeleHealth Solution
Across the country, well over 100,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and these numbers continue to climb along with rising positivity rates. Similar to the earliest days of the pandemic, this surge in patients is filling hospitals to capacity and beyond.
The resulting shortage of beds and clinicians threatens to compromise quality of patient care and even raise the specter of rationing care in some hard-hit communities.
Increasingly, hospitals are recognizing that telemedicine provides a powerful tool for stretching limited resources by preventing and better managing overcrowding.
Telemedicine can make a critical difference in three key ways:
- Telemedicine enables rural hospitals to treat patients with complex needs, reducing or eliminating the need for transfers. For critical access hospitals without specialists such as cardiologists or pulmonologists on staff, managing patients with complex or high-risk medical needs – whether COVID-19 related or not – typically requires transferring them to a tertiary facility. By providing virtual access to experienced board-certified specialists as needed, telemedicine allows rural hospitals to diagnose and treat many of these patients right in their own facility.
For example, consider a patient admitted to a rural hospital presenting with elevated biomarker levels. Through telemedicine, a cardiologist can remotely evaluate whether the patient is having a heart attack or displaying COVID-related organ stress. The specialist can then collaborate with on-site care providers to determine if the patient can successfully be cared for internally.
Telemedicine can also play a valuable role in critical access facilities when patients admitted with COVID-19 begin to suffer increased respiratory stress. A pulmonologist can remotely evaluate whether intubation is required. If it is not, the specialist can also help continue to treat the patient safely in place, avoiding the need for transfer.
In addition, telemedicine can provide or supplement hospitalist services, including rounding and admission coverage, for rural hospitals. This capability stretches limited resources and supports local physicians’ ability to provide quality care for all patients in-house.