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To reduce the spread of the coronavirus, hospitals move to telemedicine

Your next appointment may be by phone or video chat

Dr. Rebecca Grochow Mishuris, a Boston Medical Center internal medicine physician and associate chief medical information officer at BMC courtesy photo
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Medical care increasingly is relying on telehealth — virtual care platforms that allow health care professionals and patients to meet by phone or video chat — to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to free up medical staff for emergency cases.

Normally used when patients are far away or unable to travel due to the weather, virtual visits have increased 10- to 20-fold in recent weeks, said Dr. Lee Schwamm, a Massachusetts General Hospital neurologist, director of MGH’s Center for TeleHealth, and vice president of virtual care for Partners HealthCare.

“The current crisis makes virtual care solutions like telehealth an indispensable tool as COVID-19 spreads across U.S. communities,” Schwamm said. “I believe it can help flatten the curve of infections and help us to deploy medical staff and lifesaving equipment wisely.”

Boston Medical Center launched telehealth visits on March 16, and within 48 hours went from almost zero to 1,500 scheduled, said Dr. Rebecca Grochow Mishuris, an internal medicine physician and associate chief medical information officer at BMC.

“Before the pandemic, we were doing almost no telemedicine,” Grochow Mishuris said. “(But) we have made a concerted effort to reduce the number of patients coming to our facility for ambulatory visits … to reduce the risk to our patients and to ourselves.”

Telemedicine also has freed up doctors and nurses to focus on emergency and urgent cases, she said, and to attend to patients who become seriously ill from COVID-19 after showing symptoms including fever, dry cough and shortness of breath.

“We are all now living in an uncertain time and doing our best not to overwhelm the health care system,” Grochow Mishuris said. “At Boston Medical Center, it is up to the physician as to whether to do appointments by phone or video, and the patient is allowed to decline.”

Patients’ insurance should cover telehealth visits, she said, and their co-pays remain the same.

Bill Blout, a licensed social worker and president of HelpPRO, an online portal that helps people across the country find therapists, said he has closed the Lexington office that he has used for his private practice, and he now meets with clients via Zoom, a secure video platform.

“It’s important to be able to see nonverbal cues from clients,” Blout said. “If somebody appears anxious or angry or depressed, you want to be able to see that.”

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