Dr. David Blumenthal: Why telemedicine will not 'totally transform our healthcare system'

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While telemedicine has rapidly expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, its effect on patient-physician relationships is not likely to create widespread transformation across the healthcare system, according to David Blumenthal, MD.

In a June 30 op-ed for Harvard Business Review, Dr. Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund and former national coordinator for health IT under the Obama administration, explained where telemedicine falls short and why he is skeptical of its transformative effect.

Dr. Blumenthal wrote that while he believes new IT can benefit patients and their caregivers, these relationships grow strongest through in-person encounters. In-person visits allow clinicians to use all their senses to assess the patient as opposed to just hearing and vision.

"…There is no diagnostic test more cost-effective than the laying on of hands," Dr. Blumenthal wrote. "I have found treatable cancers multiple times in routine exams that would be impossible to replicate in the virtual world. Could a Zoom visit detect a lymph node too firm, a spleen or liver too large…?"

Despite its limitations, telemedicine "makes perfect sense" in certain situations, such as the current pandemic when in-person exposure must be limited or to reach patients and family physicians in remote areas. Ultimately though, telemedicine works best when it is tailored to accommodate the patient's needs and promotes the relationship between the patient and clinician, Dr. Blumenthal wrote.

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