Telehealth visits are more popular than ever—here’s how to prepare
Need to see a doctor? It’s OK to stay home
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A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has given doctors an unprecedented lens into their patients’ homes. Whether it’s as simple as seeing what food is in someone’s refrigerator or clues like ashtrays in the background that reveal a smoking habit, physicians now have a more comprehensive view versus what’s typically mentioned during in-person visits.
But, for gerontologist Kerry Burnight, this fast-forward into virtual care is even more notable because it’s changed the culture of a population that is decades removed from the “selfie generation.”
“We’ve made big inroads into the groups of people willing to turn their cameras on,” she says, citing the spike in Medicare telehealth visits pre-COVID from 15,000 beneficiaries weekly to 24 million between mid-March and mid-October.
“There’s so many great things about it — you don’t need to worry about things like transportation to doctors’ offices, the spread of disease, or more consistency in visits. But essentially, I’m always thinking about how health begins at home.”
John Whitman, a specialist in aging and long-term care who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, explains that technology has come a long way from the cliche 1980s “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercials.
“The technology being developed now is just incredible,” he says, “and remote monitoring capabilities like these give doctors time to interact, and intercede.”
For those aging in place, she and other gerontologists agree: Telehealth offers myriad lessons on how seniors can remain independent.
Preparation prevents frustration
The most effective telehealth visits are those for which patients have prepared in advance, says Dr. Carmel B. Dyer, a geriatrician and director of the Consortium on Aging at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
She suggests that both patients and their loved ones or friends conduct “drills” in advance to practice using different platforms, or have a “telepresenter” assistant on hand for the first visit, who can help determine the best spots in the house that have enough light and are free of distractions like pets or televisions.
It’s also important to remember that while seniors may be open to using tech tools like laptops, certain devices may not be the best choice.
Burnight shares, “When you get older, you get very dry fingers. Screens are designed to interact because of moisture in your finger. You can press, press, press, and it might not work. It’s not always user error.”
Burnight suggests increasing the default font sizes on devices in advance, and if necessary, using technology that may not include a touchpad.
She also cautions that as people age, they tend to lose hearing in higher registers, so a separate set of speakers may help with potential audio hiccups.
Both Dyer and Burnight are encouraged by the new ability that telehealth visits present to widen participation in ongoing medical discussions. “Group calls can allow family members to participate in virtual televisits, regardless of where they live,” says Dyer.
Doctors can suggest lifestyle modifications
The best approach to long-term live-at-home health may be lifestyle modifications, advises Burnight. Physicians now have greater opportunities to ask their patients to use their camera phones for a broader perspective on diet, for instance.
Burnight says, “A lot of times, I’ll even show my refrigerator, and I show them the berries I bought, and ask to see what’s in their refrigerator. If I’m seeing alcohol, for instance, that might be something to monitor.”
Dyer is enthused by new opportunities to monitor prescriptions. “A look into the home for this aspect is better than the in-person visits,” she says. “Providers can also ask to see how and where medications are kept.”
Quick delivery services ease the stress of driving
A same-day medication delivery from CVS can be key to making adjustments within hours. The proliferation of other quick-delivery pharmacy delivery services used during the pandemic will be especially helpful for other seniors living in place, Whitman explains.
Burnight also encourages seniors to consider grocery delivery services that lighten the load of lifting heavy grocery bags into cars, or commuting in areas with rough weather that can make driving or even walking dangerous.
And as for getting behind the wheel, rideshare services enhance mobility options for seniors. Some services, like GoGoGrandparent, help seniors request a Lyft or an Uber via phone call without having to navigate those proprietary apps — and they can also order groceries and medication via a call, too.
Knowing what your resources are can make all the difference
Whitman encourages seniors to ask their healthcare providers about updates to what may be covered by Medicare, because since the start of the pandemic the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services continues to expand the list of covered remote services.
For those who served in the military or their spouses, Whitman also recommends investigating aid and attendance benefits from American Veterans Aid. The tax-free financial assistance helps cover the cost of long-term in-home care, in addition to assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
And for those who may be a little less tech-savvy, AARP guides on where to start when it comes to getting up to speed on telehealth are useful, says Burnight.
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