As we continue through the pandemic, regular checkups and health care visits are more important than ever. But when every trip out of the house poses the risk of infection, many individuals fear visiting the doctor.

That’s where telehealth comes in, filling a need in the health care community, according to Dr. Michael Biscaro, chief of behavioral health at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland; Denise Sadler, clinical director at Life Solutions South in Cleveland Heights; and Gregg Zolton, chief information officer at Crystal Clinic Orthopaedic Center in Montrose with offices across Northeast Ohio.

“It has opened up the community to both providers and consumers,” Sadler said. “Telehealth has been around for a while, but with COVID-19, it has pushed us to do things differently on both sides. No-show rates have reduced for appointments since all you have to do is get up, put on a shirt and get in front of your device.”

Zolton said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst for telehealth as patients have care needs, but are either unable to visit their physicians in person or have concerns about going to a medical facility. Before the pandemic, it was impractical for health care organizations to provide telehealth visits due to reimbursement issues and other restrictions.”

Though the option has been around for some time, Biscaro said the switch to telehealth visits was particularly unprecedented for him. Just switching from a position at the VA Health System to St. Vincent in January, Biscaro saw the need for telehealth services manifest only six weeks later.

“At the VA, I was a service line manager there and managed an outpatient recovery program, and we were one of the first in the country to offer telehealth services,” he recalled. “When I came here to St. Vincent, I was so surprised how little telehealth was used – and then the pandemic hit, and we needed to act quickly. Within a few days, we had things pulled together with Zoom – getting our groups online for outpatient services and (getting) treatment out to folks.”

As the pandemic continues, it’s clear telehealth continues to be an important offering.

“Despite the pandemic, patients still have other health care needs that must be met,” Zolton said. “By offering telehealth visits, we were able to expand our reach and provide a way for patients to get needed interaction with their specialist from the comfort and safety of their own homes.”

Especially in the mental health and addiction recovery communities, both Biscaro and Sadler said accessing telehealth during a period of general fear and uncertainty made the difference for patients.

“Early on when people were really restricted to their homes, our patients who already have poor coping mechanisms spiraled out,” Sadler explained. “People with substance abuse issues got worse, and some people with children were worried about how they were going to feed and educate their children. It is overwhelming and stressful for our clients. Beyond telehealth, having the ability to call and check in on them, offering a quick service helps reduce that stress and anxiety.”

Biscaro said, “People, especially in the addiction and mental health community, rely on those supports. The supports were quickly stripped away from them – and they needed to have another option. People were used to having a lot of that connectedness, and now they’re isolated – and these are illnesses that already isolate people. We needed to make sure people had access to care as a health community in general.”

With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, the consensus is telehealth will continue to be an important health care option.

“There will still be times in orthopedics when an in-person visit is preferred,” Zolton noted. “For example, during an in-person visit, the physician can feel the degree of swelling or move a patient’s joint to assess the range of motion or pain. While telehealth has enabled us to meet our patients’ needs during the pandemic, it will remain another excellent option for care.”

Biscaro explained, “Without a doubt, there is no going back. The genie is out of the bottle, if you will. It has created better access and we’ve been able to stay in touch with people. In the mental health and addiction community, we always thought about how great it would be to be reimbursed for phone counseling. In this new time, we’re being paid for that, and we’re seeing no show rates go down and engagement go up. How can you argue with that?”

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