One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the explosion of telemedicine visits, where clinicians see patients over a computer screen instead of in person. Researchers now have more than a year of such interactions to examine, and some of their findings are surprising.
A recent study of cardiology telemedicine visits in Los Angeles found an unexpected jump among traditionally underserved groups.
Previous research suggested limited access to the internet would make telemedicine harder for patients who are older, have lower income or education levels, or who live in rural areas.
But the study at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which compared visits in 2019 and 2020, showed that’s not always the case. Telemedicine visits by Asian, Black and Hispanic patients jumped significantly during the pandemic.
The researchers said this may be because minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of essential workers, who often are unable to take time off during the pandemic for medical visits. Also, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, especially those with comorbidities, are more at risk of getting infected by COVID-19 and thus may be more reluctant to have in-person visits.
Another interesting finding was the telehealth visits resulted in fewer prescriptions and tests being ordered. More study is needed to determine if this was a result of the limitations inherent in virtual visits, when the clinician can’t conduct a full physical exam and may miss some important non-verbal clues.
Like the pandemic itself, telehealth erupted on the scene, forcing science and medicine to play catch-up. A year later, we’re still adjusting to the new normal.