Pandemic living has brought a resurgence in doctors doing house calls, but in 2021 house calls mean online visits that bring the doctor into your home remotely. The rise in online healthcare spurred largely in part by the Covid-19 pandemic has made its way into pediatric medicine, with new research out of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor showing how this change has affected parents and children alike.

A nationally representative sample of just over two thousand parents responded to the poll which was conducted in January 2021. Twenty percent of the parents polled said their child had had an online visit at some point in 2020, a sharp increase from previous years. A majority of parents were satisfied with the telemedicine their children received, opening up questions about whether such visits may become a norm or at least an ongoing option in the future.

It’s not difficult to imagine how a spotty connection might interrupt the flow of doctor-patient communication.

“COVID has had a major impact on the delivery of healthcare for children, both for routine check-ups and visits for illnesses,” lead researcher, Gary L Freed, said in a statement. “We've seen a massive expansion of virtual care, but this experience is especially new to parents who primarily relied on in-person pediatric visits.”

Since parents and guardians are the primary decision makers for their children’s healthcare, Freed’s research has focused on how parents experience their children’s online pediatric visits, a topic important to the future of telemedicine.

The poll identified several factors that affect children’s experience receiving telemedicine. For some families, telemedicine was simply the only available option during the pandemic. It was a necessity and not a choice. This was the case for half of parents polled in the study.

Convenience and safety were two other prominent themes that emerged when parents were questioned on what made them opt for pediatric telehealth. Ninety percent of parents polled were satisfied with their experience with online pediatric care and felt that all of their concerns were addressed.

Access Is An Issue

As the U.S. progresses toward a post-pandemic new normal and safety issues fade, the convenience factor may be a compelling reason that online visits to pediatricians and other doctors stick around. “For busy parents, a virtual visit reduces the burden of travel time to the appointment and minimizes time away from work or school,” according to Freed, the Percy and Mary Murphy Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health Delivery and the director of the Division of General Pediatrics.

Not all the parents polled found the online visits convenient, however. Technological issues were a drawback for some. It’s not difficult to imagine how a spotty connection might interrupt the flow of doctor-patient communication. These problems may be more common in areas without access to high-speed internet, either due to location or affordability. Lower income parents in the poll were more likely to name tech-related obstacles as a concern or challenge when it came to online pediatrics.

Those who are hesitant about telehealth are advised to give it a try with a less urgent health concern.

While telemedicine may make visiting the doctor easy for most parents, these concerns highlight how advances in medical technology often benefit those who already have access to healthcare the most, while failing to meet the needs of those with more barriers to access, such as poverty and homelessness.

Telephone visits have been suggested as a possible alternative to video calls, but researchers concede the limitations of a phone visit, including the likelihood that an in-person follow-up visit will be needed to make assessments that can’t be done over the phone. In fact, about a quarter of respondents in the poll ended up having to go for an in-office visit with their child following a telehealth visit.

Further research should help shed more light on what factors keep telemedicine from being convenient and accessible to all and identify ways to address those barriers. To this point, Freed says, “systems and policies that provide access to necessary and reliable technology will be essential to preventing inequity in availability and use of virtual care.”

To get the most out your child’s telehealth visit, researchers suggest picking a time for the visit during which they are less likely to have screen fatigue from virtual learning, family visits and other forms of video calling which have become such a common part of children’s daily lives. Those who are hesitant about telehealth are advised to give it a try with a less-than-urgent health concern to see how well it might meet your family’s needs.

A report on the results of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll is freely available.