For the past several months, I’ve had the good fortune to get excellent care for treatment of a chronic condition.
On the whole, my experience with the group and its providers has been very positive. However, the recent emergency surrounding COVID-19 has exposed a problem I doubt is limited to my particular medical practice.
About a week ago, I got a call letting me know that my long-awaited specialist visit had been canceled. While I am aware that many providers are postponing face-to-face patients for a time, I was worried enough about some issues I faced that I asked if they’d reinstate the visit.
The practice manager got back to me and informed me that I was not the only patient to be concerned, and that the physician in question had decided to see patients in person one last time before going offline indefinitely.
After concluding my appointment, I asked the physician about scheduling a follow-up visit, at least on a provisional basis, pending changes in the COVID threat landscape. I was told that this was not possible, at least for the time being, since the practice hadn’t figured out how to conduct telehealth visits.
The best I could get out of him was, in so many words, “We’ll let you know when we have things worked out. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I walked away upset and unsatisfied.
Maybe there was a time when this would have been an adequate response to my problem. However, given the widespread availability of telehealth tools, I’d argue that it was downright unacceptable. There’s no reason why the practice couldn’t have been better prepared.
To be fair, I learned later that the group’s telehealth access problem wasn’t due only to a lack of preparation for natural disasters. A staff member there told me that the group was seeking guidance from our state, which has apparently been shifting strategies every few days and leaving both managers and staff at an impasse.
Still, the days are long gone when providers facing an emergency can just shrug their shoulders and tell patients “We’re not sure what’s up with telehealth, so you’re out of luck.” Rather, I’d contend that thinking through telehealth-based delivery of services is a basic part of disaster planning, not a luxury. That planning should have included developing policies on how to cope if regulatory guidance is unclear.
I could be wrong, but I doubt the group’s IT department has given so little thought to other business continuity issues. I suspect, in fact, that IT leaders there have spent considerable time and effort seeing to it that the group’s data infrastructure remains available under virtually any circumstance you could name.
In my view, telemedicine capabilities should be on the list of core services IT should support even in emergency situations. Any institution which fails to make such tools in these circumstances is dropping the ball.