The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed healthcare systems around the world. Not only are the number of COVID patients admitted to emergency rooms and ICUs rising, routine office visits are also under pressure, restricted by the fact that patients and providers are at risk of coronavirus exposure.

Telemedicine is a potential solution for both kinds of healthcare visits. It could allow providers to see patients without either person risking exposure. It would also give short-staffed ICUs an opportunity to access critical care providers in other locations.

Not all office visits will become virtual, but probably half of them could happen online.

It's not yet clear what hospitals across the country need to do to use and provide telemedicine services. Researchers from Yale University and the University of Texas looked at telemedicine in U.S. hospitals, analyzing over 4,700 hospitals' responses to a survey by the American Hospital Association in 2017 and 2018. Fewer than half the hospitals reported offering telemedicine outpatient services, and a little more than 25 percent reported having tele-ICU capabilities. Availability of telemedicine services varied widely according to region. Regardless of their location, hospitals will need to make a significant investment to develop the infrastructure needed to increase the use of telemedicine during and after the pandemic.

These findings are a little surprising because telemedicine has been discussed in the healthcare field for at least a decade, Snigdha Jain, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor. But as recently as two years ago, the need for telemedicine services just wasn’t there. Yet telemedicine has seen an exponential increase in use during the pandemic and is really becoming a lifeline for patients and healthcare facilities. If anything, Jain said, “Hopefully, during this pandemic, we have learned how important it is to invest in telemedicine.”

And telemedicine may have a new role to play in healthcare going forward. “Healthcare professionals are supportive of using telemedicine to provide better care by reducing office wait times and increasing accessibility for patients who may have transportation issues, for example,” added Jain, a fellow in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The researchers did not look specifically at how telemedicine will be used after the pandemic, but Jain said both patients and providers appear willing to overcome challenges to accepting its widespread use. “The unknown is always scary, especially for older patients, as they learn to use new telemedicine technologies. But once people get familiar with these technologies, it will be easier to incorporate them into practice,” she said. It doesn’t mean all office visits will be virtual, but probably half of them could happen online. Jain's hope is that patients will discuss the use of telemedicine with their providers and encourage its use in whatever way they can.

The research letter is published in Annals of Internal Medicine.