Here's a big question on a lot of minds right now -- how are people able to see a doctor when social distancing has become the norm?
The answer is telemedicine, where people are using technology to visit their doctor virtually through video calling on their phone or on the computer through a website.
While it used to be more for convenience a few months ago, doctors said it's now become a necessity.
Dallas Doctor Working Overtime
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Dr. Jelani Ingram, a Dallas-based physician at Bishop Arts Wellness and Recovery, visited with patients virtually for another company for seven years and said he averaged about 10 to 15 visits per day.
He said he's now doing video calls with up to 50 patients per day, some late into the night -- most are calling about COVID-19.
“I think I went to sleep at 2 a.m. last night," Ingram said. "We have normal healthcare that we’re also doing, not just COVID-19. I take calls for urinary tract infections and sinus infections. We fill medications.”
While some are just looking for reassurance, Ingram said he's also hoping to ease the pressure put on emergency rooms from those with milder symptoms who need to remain in self-quarantine to prevent the spread.
"You are at high risk if you have uncontrolled problems, like uncontrolled diabetes, uncontrolled hypertension or immune system problems. Those are the high risk patients," he said.
Dr. Ingram added, “That’s where the self-quarantine comes into play. It’s not for the person that’s healthy that might have a cough or fever. No, it’s for their parents that have uncontrolled diabetes or if they’re in a nursing home. Maybe they’re completely healthy and they’re 85 years old and have fragile lungs. That’s where telemedicine comes into play. Talking and educating the facts as why social-distancing is something that’s needed at this point in time. It’s not necessarily for you, it’s for someone else.”
He's also helping to filter out other illnesses to help prevent hospitals from being inundated with patients not related to COVID-19.
“This is allergy season as well, this is strep season and this is flu season," said Ingram. "Let’s not forget the other coronaviruses that cause the common cold. So there’s other factors that need to be at play when we’re talking about how extreme or high panic someone should be.”
Companies Tracking High-Demand
Remedy, an Austin-based telemedicine company, is also seeing a huge increase in demand.
"We just reviewed data from last year and our video visit volume is up four to five times from this time last year, and climbing," said Justin Jaksha, COO of Remedy. "We don't believe we're anywhere near the peak yet. We're a 24/7 service and visits are rolling in well past midnight.
We did a mock visit with Dr. Jeremy Gabrysch, founder and CEO of Remedy. He goes over symptoms, temperatures and can even checks the heart rate on your Apple watch.
“Sometimes people worry about it because they think, 'Oh, well the doctor might need to listen to my lungs or I don’t know if the doctor can really evaluate me.' But the truth is, we can tell so much just by looking at a patient and talking to them," he said.
Remedy requires the patient to book an appointment first on their website and presents a survey to patients, which helps screen for COVID-19 symptoms. Some appointments are available as soon as the next 20 minutes but you can also schedule in advance for later in the day, the next day or even late at night.
“It is so important for keeping sick people at home, so if they’re not that sick they can use telemedicine, talk to a doctor, and get some reassurance. And if they don’t have the virus, then it’s really good too -- because it keeps them home and away from other sick people,"
Remedy does house calls as well, but only for issues not related to coronavirus. Any COVID-19 patients will be seen via video call.
And while testing for COVID-19 is not yet available for those house visits, Jaksha said they are working to have tests soon to help health authorities safely and efficiently track COVID-19 cases.
"House calls are crucial for other patients, too, because we can do stitches, strep tests, and IV fluids for those that don't have flu or COVID-19 symptoms, but don't want to go somewhere where they'd risk exposure," Jaksha said.
Texas Health Resources also has a mobile unit for house calls called DispatchHealth, which is seeing an increase in calls.
"We are seeing a significant increase in demand, with requests for care up 40% nationally," DispatchHealth said in a statement. "Our goal is to keep the most vulnerable patients home and out of crowded environments and, with our model, DispatchHealth is uniquely positioned to help do that. We intend to see anyone and everyone who requests and needs care. As long as our teams and others have appropriate protective personnel equipment, we will visit, evaluate, and ensure patients recover at home or escalate to a higher level of care if needed. We have ordered tests for COVID-19, but like many providers, we don't yet have that capability and hope to soon."
Medical City also has a virtual care program that you can access through any device.
Texas Health Aetna is also stepping up to the telemedicine cause with an app and website called Anytime-MD. It works closely with local hospitals and has a partnership with DispatchHealth to send a triage team to a home if necessary.
A spokesperson with Anytime-MD said wait times are only a few minutes and doctors can text a patient when they are ready to be seen.
DialCare is another local telemedicine service based in Frisco offering similar physician and mental health programs through an app or on a computer. Doctors are also available 24/7.
"With the emergence of Coronavirus (COVID-19) across the U.S., telemedicine has become a valuable resource that has been called out on a local, state and national level, to help flatten the curve of infection and keep patients and health care providers connected by phone or video around the clock," said DialCare president Jeremy Hedrick in a statement. "DialCare’s national network of licensed physicians stands ready 24/7 to be a resource in providing much-needed virtual access to care and information for anyone who wants to speak with a physician without having to go to a physical office location."
Health Insurance Coverage
Many health insurance companies use different telemedicine options for their customers and all video calls are usually free if covered by your insurance.
If your health insurance does not cover telemedicine or if you don't have insurance, many companies offer services for a flat rate. Remedy does video calls for $49. Others will make house-visits for between $75 to $150 or more dollars. Do some research and determine which option is best for you.
And if you're worried about wait times, doctors said to be patient. While call volumes are up, companies are working to accommodate as many people as possible.
"We have more patients than ever who are trying telehealth and video visits and are surprised at how effective it is," Jaksha said. "Even with the longer wait times from this surge, our patients seem to be appreciative of the convenience. And, from an insurance standpoint, it's really simple."
Telemedicine Company Waives Fees
One telemedicine service is suspending its basic primary care consultation fee for patients seeking services including prescription refills or other medical needs for people who are sheltering in place, under home quarantine or unrelated to coronavirus.
"We are getting a lot of calls for the Covid-19 test and we are seeing patients accordingly as this is still regular flu season and allergy season. If the patient meets the current requirements for COVID-19 testing we will refer them to the proper local testing center to be tested," said John Marruffo with CallonDoc.com.