Telerheumatology Will Thrive Post Pandemic

Bruce Jancin

March 17, 2021

Telemedicine has had a profound effect upon the practice of rheumatology during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to do so afterward, speakers predicted at the 2021 Rheumatology Winter Clinical Symposium.

"Telemedicine will change the way we do business. It already has," observed Eric M. Ruderman, MD, professor of medicine (rheumatology) at Northwestern University in Chicago.

"All of a sudden in March of last year we all turned on a dime and went 100% remote, and we made it work. And it has worked well. It's not the same as seeing people in person, but I'm pretty sure that going forward probably somewhere in the range of 30% of our visits are going to be telemedicine. It's an incredible way to deal with people who are stable and are driving in from an hour-and-a-half away to get their prescription refilled," he said.

Conditions well suited for video patient visits are those where the physical exam isn't informative or necessary, such as polymyalgia rheumatica, axial spondyloarthritis with axial disease only, childhood periodic fever syndromes, and even many cases of rheumatoid arthritis, in Ruderman's view.

"People who are stable – maybe not in remission, but we've decided they're at that their target – a lot of those visits can be done remotely. It's way more efficient. Everybody loves it: We like it, the patients like it. But we have to get to where we can do it better. The technology is clumsy right now," he said.

"We do need better and smarter platforms," agreed Alvin F. Wells, MD, PhD, a telerheumatology pioneer who has been involved in digital/video communication with his patients for nearly 6 years. "But the biggest issue is connectivity. Not all of our patients can get on the Internet."

The telerheumatology paradigm he has used during the pandemic and will continue to use afterward is to see every new patient in the office, then do the follow-up visits virtually.

"They don't need to come back into the office in 4 weeks. I've done my physical exam, ordered the x-rays and lab work. At the virtual 4-week follow-up we go over everything and I tell them if they need to come in for training in giving their injections," explained Wells, a rheumatologist in Franklin, Wisc.

"The telemedicine visit doesn't take the place of an in-person visit, but it allows you to stratify, to say who needs to be seen sooner rather than later," he added.

While he anticipates that physician-patient virtual visits will continue to be an important part of clinical practice post pandemic, he predicted the major growth areas for telerheumatology once COVID-19 is squashed will be in clinician-to-clinician interactions and remote patient monitoring using smart devices.

Wells hasn't gone into the hospital once since the pandemic began. Initially, that was because he didn't want to deal with the personal protective equipment shortage or expose himself to the virus. Now, it's because it's just a more efficient use of his time to conduct virtual – and billable – 15-minute e-consults with clinicians in the hospital.

"I've had a lot of appropriate consults with the hospitalists," he said. He can walk a hospitalist through a real-time physical exam at a gout patient's bedside and order the right laboratory tests.

"I don't need to go into the hospital. The interventional radiologist can tap an ankle or toe as well as I can," the rheumatologist said.

Dermatologist George Martin, MD, rose from the audience to say that while he recognizes that pandemic telemedicine has been a good fit for rheumatologists, it's been a very different story in dermatology.

"I realize telemedicine works really well when you don't have to lay your hands on a patient, or when you're just doing a stable follow-up and talking about test results. But we in dermatology have found as a group that telemedicine is pretty worthless. When patients are trying to send you a video stream of what their melanoma looks like, or maybe it's a benign seborrheic keratosis, you're going to hang their life on that? Dermatology is a very hands-on, visual thing, and unless the camera work becomes better telemedicine is worthless, with the exception of a laboratory follow-up or a stable visit where a physical exam is not required," declared Martin, who is in private practice in Maui.

Wells reported serving as a consultant to MiCare Path, a remote health and monitoring company.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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