With winter further in the rear-view mirror and warmer seasons upon us, many of us now get to enjoy seasonal activities — grilling, boating, golfing, or just enjoying the heat of the sun — that we’ve missed for the past several months. For most of us, concurrent with the seasonal change is a change in our activity related to coronavirus. Restrictions are easing, at least for now. With that comes the long list of things we deeply want to revert back to pre-pandemic, and soon.
But what about things we do not want to be as they were before? It seems as if we have learned a few things in this time we may not want to unlearn. As unnatural as it may seem, great ideas and initiatives often are borne out of disruption, due to stark necessity. For example, nuclear technology now powers much of the world but would not exist without the previous military applications during WWII. Also arising out of the war came penicillin, jet engines, helicopters, and the beginnings of the computer.
It’s worth asking: What have we been doing recently out of necessity that we should keep long after it is a necessity? In the medical world, one practice that stands out above the rest is virtual treatment and evaluations.
Telehealth (virtual) treatment was not developed during this pandemic. It has been researched and used successfully for assessment and treatment—in behavioral health and medicine—for many years. However, in the past three months, it has quickly evolved from an option to a necessity. And as the use of telemedicine has increased exponentially, so has the comfort level of providers, patients and payers.
What telehealth pioneers have known for a long time is now being widely accepted and used. An important thing to note is that telemedicine is not a new service, it is simply another way to deliver the service. There is no objective or subjective clinical difference between telemedicine and an in-office visit. Telemedicine also allows for more choice as people are not limited to a provider who is within walking or driving distance from their home or work. This allows individuals to choose the right provider, regardless of geographic limitations (albeit within the same state or jurisdiction).
Full disclosure: I’m not an early adopter of technology. In my garage are three cars with manual transmissions, because I like to do things myself. One of those cars is nearly 60 years old. Professionally, providing virtual services would have been frowned upon when I was in graduate school, or throughout my clinical training. But much has changed since that time. And it’s not just the early adopters or early majority who are taking advantage of virtual capabilities. Telemedicine has even been adopted by some who previously were “never-tele” crowd. With necessity demanding the innovation of telemedicine, it has in some circumstances become the only way to serve providers’ patients and evaluees. And what many have discovered is that their stance of calling telehealth “better than nothing” has evolved to just calling it “better”—period.
Even as offices reopen and in-person services restart, telemedicine will continue to have a strong showing—and should. The pandemic has all but assured this. In the years to come, it is conceivable that in-office visits become a thing of the past. There will continue to be a place for in-person treatment and evaluation, but that place will be smaller than before as we take advantage of the new freedoms, efficiencies, and flexibly that telehealth solutions offer.
How many of us have traded our smartphones back in for flip phones, or rotary phones? How many have traded in a car with Bluetooth capability for one that only has an FM radio? In behavioral health treatment and evaluation, going backward is also not an option. We may have been forced into adoption by the pandemic, but now that the initial shove is over, it turns out this is the direction we wanted to head all along.
Tyler is Associate Medical Director of R3 Continuum (R3c), a global leader in protecting and cultivating workplace wellbeing in a complex world. He has over 13 years of domestic and international experience in behavioral health workplace absence—including disability and worker’s compensation assessment, consultation with employers and insurers on complex claims, effective return to work strategies, program development and improvement, and training and supervision of industry professionals. He’s a sought-after speaker, writer and contributor in the field of workplace behavioral health. You can reach him at [email protected]
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