Is Telemedicine Practical for Plastic Surgeons?
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, telemedicine is becoming a major growth industry. While not everything can be handled remotely, the growth in telehealth services is ensuring that virtual appointments can be performed securely and safely. So, is there a practical way plastic surgeons can use telemedicine? While, obviously, surgery can’t be done remotely, there is a place for telemedicine in consultations and certain post-surgery appointments.
Benefits of Telemedicine
The use of telemedicine where possible brings with it a number of benefits, and with relaxed regulations, the technology is now much more usable. Here are some of the obvious ones:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, anything which reduces the risk of exposure to office staff, patients, and providers is a good thing. Telemedicine allows patient care to continue to occur at significantly reduced risk, and studies prove that telehealth is just as reliable for identifying complications and issues with wound healing. For some patients, delaying care can increase complications; while it’s perfectly reasonable to delay aesthetic surgery, such things as facial reconstructions cannot generally wait for a more “convenient” time. Using telemedicine as much as possible also reduces the amount of PPE clinic needs.
Some patients have to travel long distances to reach the plastic surgeons, especially those in rural areas. By scheduling non-surgical visits via telemedicine, you can reduce the number of times somebody has to travel, ideally to one. They can also get a second opinion without having to make another trip. This reduces travel costs, reduces time away from work, and can make things much more practical. This in turn means that patients are less likely to put off procedures and will get things done quickly, which can result in simpler procedures.
Improved Patient-Surgeon Rapport
There’s some indication that the use of telemedicine for an initial consultation, especially for aesthetic surgery, can positively impact a patient’s level of comfort with the surgeon by removing extraneous issues such as the look of the building. It can also reduce gender and racial bias in surgeon choice. Many patients report that the office environment impacts their choice of the surgeon at least as much as more relevant matters such as experience.
Cost and Appointment Time
One primary benefit is that telemedicine tends to be cheaper. The surgeon can do the consultation from their office, freeing up examination rooms for patients who do need to be there and ultimately potentially reducing overhead. They can also move from patient to patient more quickly, allowing them to see more patients and resulting in shorter wait times. This can, in turn, increase patient satisfaction by saving them time and making them feel more valued.
Telemedicine thus is practical for some consultations and has some very real benefits. However, it also has some very real limitations.
Limitations of Telemedicine
When deploying telemedicine, it’s vital for practices to be aware of its issues and limitations. As a relatively new technology, telemedicine still has some teething problems. Here are some things to consider:
Telemedicine platforms are generally secure, but there are obvious concerns surrounding the transmission of patient data and the video itself. With healthcare providers often targets of hackers, it’s vital to choose your telehealth platform carefully and with a strong eye towards security and privacy.
One risk with telemedicine is that the call will be interrupted and potentially need to be rescheduled. Bandwidth limitations can deny telemedicine to the very patients that need it most, those in remote rural areas. (One solution to this is to partner with a local doctor who can allow you to use their internet connection, but this does not provide the same COVID risk reduction benefits). Interrupted appointments may cause the surgeon to run late or need to be rescheduled.
Not all insurance policies will cover telemedicine, and if they do they may have limitations on what they will cover. For pre-surgical consultations, insurers may refuse to accept a virtual examination and may insist on a physical one before they will approve the surgery to go ahead. Providers should, thus, be sure to check with a patient’s insurer prior to scheduling any kind of telemedicine visit. Reimbursement is improving as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, but battles with insurance companies are likely to continue for some time.
Surgeons and their staff need to learn how to correctly use the telemedicine platform. They should receive training and practice doing calls with each other before trying to deal with patients. Not all surgeons are comfortable with video conferencing technology in general and they may be particularly uncomfortable using it in this way.
A lot of regulations about telehealth have been relaxed due to the pandemic, and some are likely to be restored. There may be particular issues consulting with a patient in a different state.
Patient Comfort With the Technology
Some patients may simply not be comfortable using video conferencing technology. They may have concerns about privacy. Some patients may also have difficulty keeping partners and family members out of the room when conducting a telemedicine visit, which can increase the risk of interference.
Learn More About Telemedicine for Plastic Surgeons
Despite this, telemedicine has enough advantages to be worth pursuing; and many of its limitations can be or will be dealt with as the technology and associated systems mature. For plastic surgeons it allows for reduced costs for patients and the ability to reduce patient travel and its associated costs and risks; for this reason, it’s likely to remain part of the process long after the pandemic is gone.
Of course, it’s also important for surgeons to take steps to make the actual surgery as safe as possible. The use of single-use instruments can significantly reduce the risk of cross-contamination between patients while making the surgeon’s job easier. A great example of this is obp’s ONETRAC, a single-use cordless surgical retractor. The device includes an integrated LED light source and smoke evacuation channel. It’s ready to use right out of the box and is ideal for breast and reconstructive procedures. Contact us to find out more.