Note: The coronavirus forced all of us to change our lives, often in dramatic ways. This article is part of a series about the people who pivoted in 2020.

“Telehealth” has been evolving on the periphery of medicine for years. But when the pandemic hit this year, the delivery of healthcare really went digital to spread a safety net for patients and providers.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine working from home as a physician,” said Dr. Ann Marie Richards of FirstHealth Family Medicine in Pinehurst. “This is a whole new way to deliver care.”

Pre-pandemic, FirstHealth on the Go was rolled out as a 24/7 app for patients suffering from minor ailments who could not get to their primary care physician. But federal privacy restrictions in place prior to mid-March restricted doctors to only a few, secured video platforms for telehealth services, and not all health insurance providers would cover these kinds of e-visits.

Changes in those regulations made early this spring allowed for rapid growth and expansion of virtual healthcare. According to data from McKinsey & Co., 46 percent of U.S. patients have used telehealth to replace an in-person appointment this year.

“How do you perform a physical exam virtually? As physicians we are always learning and this was definitely something new to learn,” Richards said. “When Phase 1 restrictions hit, we knew we needed to be innovative.”

Whether using FaceTime, Microsoft Teams or other technology platforms, her goal was to provide easy, accessible online care for patients.

Since mid-March, those efforts have evolved and FirstHealth Family Care Clinic, where Richards works, is now recognized as a pilot program for how to advance telemedicine in a primary care setting. Using a structured schedule, the clinic’s providers rotate daily between seeing patients in-person, virtually, working from home, or taking time off.

“This allows us to see the highest number of patients that day and we are reducing those risks of exposure,” Richards said. “It is always the patient’s choice how they are seen. We try to provide options in the form that is most comfortable for them.”

Virtual appointments also give healthcare providers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the daily lives of patients, potentially picking up clues that otherwise might be missed.

“I can see where they live or work. When you come into the clinic, I don’t have that same good visual. It gives me a better idea of how I can help care for them,” said Richards.

If there is a silver lining in the pandemic, it may be the rapid adoption of smart technology across all generations. It is not just younger adults using apps and virtual platforms: there has been a seismic shift forward for society as a whole.

“What is most important is having technology that is simple to use. That has leveled the playing field,” said Richards. “We are now seeing grandmothers who are FaceTiming their grandkids. We have families who had a Zoom Thanksgiving dinner. And I have elderly patients who are just as savvy with technology as teenagers.”

Looking ahead, striking a balance between traditional care and telemedicine will be crucial in healthcare.

“Telemedicine is here to stay. This is going to become part of our standard of care, but we have to make sure we don’t swing too,” Richards said. “There is healing power in physical touch and there will always be a place for an in-person visit. As technology plays a bigger role in medicine, we don’t want to lose that physical touch aspect.”


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