What to do when physicians get coronavirus; How telehealth can help

While telehealth can be used to triage and treat individuals with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the technology can also be an effective way for quarantined physicians to assist with relief efforts, according to a March 11 New England Journal of Medicine report.

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the country — the U.S. has 1,323 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 38 deaths as of 9:35 a.m., March 12 — hospitals have been forced to quarantine employees who have contracted the virus or come in close contact.

"At institutions with emergency tele-intake or direct-to-consumer care, quarantined physicians can cover those services, freeing up other physicians to perform in-person care," wrote Judd Hollander, MD, and Brendan Carr, MD, according to the report. "Office-based practices can also employ quarantined physicians to care for patients remotely."

Dr. Hollander is an emergency medicine physician and oversees Philadelphia-based Jefferson Health's telehealth program; Dr. Carr is emergency medicine chair at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. They explained that while telehealth can help physicians contribute to relief efforts, the technology can't replace all clinicians, such as nurses and physician assistants, who also contribute to in-person care.

In preparation for the worst-case scenario being a local pandemic that leaves healthcare workers quarantined or absent, Jefferson Health is converting scheduled office visits to telehealth visits so that clinicians can continue care for established and nonexposed patients.  

While telehealth cannot solve all the challenges healthcare delivery endures during disasters and pandemics, the technology is well equipped for scenarios in which infrastructure remains in place and clinicians are free to see patients. Factors including payment and regulatory structures, state licensing and hospital credentialing take time to situate, but health systems that have already deployed telehealth programs are "well positioned to ensure that patients with Covid-19 receive the care they need. In this instance, it may be a virtually perfect solution," the co-authors concluded.


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