Care via Video Teleconferencing Can Be as Effective as In-Person for Some Conditions

Diana Swift

December 07, 2021

As the pandemic shows no signs of ending, primary care doctors may be reassured that delivering care via video teleconferencing can be as effective as usual in-person consultation for several common health conditions.

Dr Jordan Albritton

This was a finding of a new study published in Annals of Internal Medicine involving a review of literature on video teleconferencing (VTC) visits, which was authored by Jordan Albritton, PhD, MPH and his colleagues.

The authors found generally comparable patient outcomes as well as no differences in health care use, patient satisfaction, and quality of life when visits conducted using VTC were compared with usual care.

While VTC may work best for monitoring patients with chronic conditions, it can also be effective for acute care, said Albritton, who is a research public health analyst at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., in an interview.

The investigators analyzed 20 randomized controlled trials of at least 50 patients and acceptable risk of bias in which VTC was used either for main or adjunct care delivery. Published from 2013 to 2019, these studies looked at care for diabetes and pain management, as well as some respiratory, neurologic, and cardiovascular conditions. Studies comparing VTC with usual care that did not involve any added in-person care were more likely to favor the VTC group, the investigators found.

"We excluded conditions such as substance use disorders, maternal care, and weight management for which there was sufficient prior evidence of the benefit of VTC," Albritton said in an interview. "But I don't think our results would have been substantially different if we had included these other diseases. We found general evidence in the literature that VTC is effective for a broader range of conditions."

In some cases, such as if changes in a patient's condition triggered an automatic virtual visit, the author said he thinks VTC may lead to even greater effectiveness.

"The doctor and patient could figure out on the spot what's going on and perhaps change the medication," Albritton explained.

Dr Julia Frydman

In general agreement is Julia L. Frydman, MD, assistant professor in the Brookdale Department of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who was not involved in the RTI research.

"Telemedicine has promise across many medical subspecialties, and what we need now are more studies to understand the perspectives of patients, caregivers, and clinicians as well as the impact of telemedicine on health outcomes and healthcare utilization."

In acknowledgment of their utility, video visits are on the rise in the United States. A 2020 survey found that 22% of patients and 80% of physicians reported having participated in a video visit, three times the rate of the previous year. The authors noted that policy changes enacted to support telehealth strategies during the pandemic are expected to remain in place, and although patients are returning to in-person care, the virtual visit market will likely continue growing.

Increased Telemedicine Use by Older Adults

"We've seen an exciting expansion of telemedicine use among older adults, and we need to focus on continuing to meet their needs," Frydman said.

In a recent study of televisits during the pandemic, Frydman's group found a fivefold greater uptake of remote consultations by seniors – from 5% to 25%. Although in-person visits were far more common among older adults.

Dr Deepa Iyengar

A specific advantage of video-based over audio-only telehealth, noted Albritton, is that physicians can directly observe patients in their home environment. Sharing that view is Deepa Iyengar, MBBS/MD,MPH, professor of family medicine at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where, she said, "the pandemic has put VTC use into overdrive."

According to Iyengar, who was not involved in the RTI research, the video component definitely represents value-added over phone calls. "You can pick up visual cues on video that you might not see if the patient came in and you can see what the home environment is like – whether there are a lot of loose rugs on the floor or broken or missing light bulbs," she said in an interview.

"VTC Is Here to Stay"

In other parts of the country, doctors are finding virtual care useful – and more common. "VTC is here to stay, for sure – the horse is out of the barn," said Cheryl L. Wilkes, MD, an internist at Northwestern Medicine and assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. "The RTI study shows no harm from VTC and also shows it may even improve clinical outcomes."

Dr Cheryl Wilkes

Video visits can also save patients high parking fees at clinics and spare the sick or elderly from having to hire caregivers to bring them into the office or from having to walk blocks in dangerous weather conditions, she added. "And I can do a virtual visit on the fly or at night when a relative or caregiver is home from work to be there with the patient."

In addition to being beneficial for following up with patients with chronic diseases such as hypertension or diabetes, VTC may be able to replace some visits that have traditionally required hands-on care, said Wilkes.

She said she knows a cardiologist who has refined a process whereby a patient – say, one who may have edema – is asked to perform a maneuver via VTC and then display the result to the doctor: The doctor says, "put your leg up and press on it hard for 10 seconds and then show me what it looks like," according to Wilkes.

The key now is to identify the best persons across specialties from neurology to rheumatology to videotape ways they've created to help their patients participate virtually in consults traditionally done at the office, Wilkes noted.

But some conditions will always require palpation and the use of a stethoscope, according Iyengar.

"If someone has an ulcer, I have to be able to feel it," she said.

And while some maternity care can be given virtually – for instance, if a mother-to be develops a bad cold – hands-on obstetrical care to check the position and health of the baby obviously has to be done in person. "So VTC is definitely going to be a welcome addition but not a replacement," Iyengar said.

Gaps in Research on VTC Visits

Many questions remain regarding the overall usefulness of VTC visits for certain patient groups, according to the authors.

They highlighted, for example, the dearth of data on subgroups or on underserved and vulnerable populations, with no head-to-head studies identified in their review. In addition, they found no studies examining VTC versus usual care for patients with concurrent conditions or on its effect on health equity and disparities.

"It's now our job to understand the ongoing barriers to telemedicine access, including the digital divide and the usability of telemedicine platforms, and design interventions that overcome them," Frydman said. "At the same time, we need to make sure we're understanding and respecting the preferences of older adults in terms of how they access health care."

This study was supported by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). Albritton is employed by RTI International, the contractor responsible for conducting the research and developing the manuscript. Several coauthors disclosed support from or contracts with PCORI. One coauthor's spouse holds stock in private health companies. Frydman, Iyengar, and Wilkes disclosed no competing interests relevant to their comments.

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

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