In mid-March, when Governor Jared Polis suspended elective surgeries and nonemergency medical procedures to slow the spread of COVID-19, doctors weren’t sure how they’d treat routine patients—those with common colds or, say, pimply teenagers. “The truth was that nobody had a great road map for something like this because it was really unexpected,” says Ari Melmed, medical director of Kaiser Permanente’s telehealth services in Colorado. Soon, though, Kaiser docs were seeing 90 percent of patients via a computer screen, up from about 10 percent before the pandemic, and many people actually seemed to enjoy the virtual experience more than the IRL version. (Turns out waiting for a tardy doctor isn’t so aggravating if you’re doing it from your own couch.) Here, we outline how telemed helped three specialties treat patients during the pandemic and why Zoom is the exam room of the future.
Denver Health’s virtual dentistry program—through which physicians provide hygiene consultations and oral care education—became much more popular during COVID-19, with up to 32 percent of patients seizing the opportunity to dial their dentists. Practitioners like Dr. Duane Mata assess oral health via video chat while still delivering the sugar shame kids have dreaded for generations: Mata asks children to show him their pantries and fridges to make sure they aren’t lying about how much junk food they’re ingesting. Based on his observations, Mata can sometimes tell patients if they are in need of an in-person cleaning or filling.
Colorado Center for Dermatology & Skin Surgery added a telehealth arm to its practice and asked patients to send close-up smartphone photos of blemishes before video appointments (webcams aren’t high definition enough to capture the subtle scales
of a psoriasis patch). This allowed its five physicians to treat conditions such as acne, eczema, and rosacea virtually. Medical director Dr. Matthew Mahlberg expects to return to mostly in-person visits after the pandemic. But telehealth might be a convenient long-term remedy for more pedantic to-dos like collecting pregnancy test results before prescribing women Accutane, a cystic acne medicine that is unsafe to take during pregnancy; the urinalyses had to be performed at the doctor’s office or at an outpatient laboratory facility until the organization overseeing Accutane regulations relaxed them during COVID-19.
Before March, UCHealth’s virtual urgent care program saw about 10 to 20 patients a day. By April, demand had skyrocketed and the team was treating 70 or more per shift, handling a variety of ailments—from rashes to urinary tract infections—helping to reduce the number of people in emergency rooms. “It served as a virtual triage center,” UCHealth’s Dr. Kelly Eichhorn says. “If someone cut their finger, they could show us and we could tell them if they needed sutures.” If a patient did need stitches, the virtual care provider would point them to the nearest urgent care center. Not only did the virtual center save patients trips to the clinic, but in many cases, it saved them from a pricey bill—online visits were capped at $49.