BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Air Force Global Strike Command has continually sought new and innovative ways to do business and make sure the mission continues.
AFGSC’s use of telemedicine is no exception. Prior to the pandemic, the Air Force as a whole was using telemedicine, but on a much smaller scale, said Col. Robert Peltzer, Command Administrator with the AFGSC Command Surgeon’s office.
“Our Air Force nursing staff has used telemedicine quite frequently to provide medical advice and relay provider treatment instructions to patients. However, telemedicine by Air Force providers has been used less frequently for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Given the risks of COVID-19 exposure, we have been charged to utilize a host of other methods to continue to provide care and services to our patients. It has allowed us (and I believe the Air Force Medical Service as a whole) to recognize how we can use technology, including secure messaging and sometimes even video telehealth, to better serve our patients.”
Improved technology and capabilities and an increase in tech saavy patients and providers expressing interest in telemedicine options are just a couple of the reasons behind the sudden surge in telemedicine, said Lt. Col. Michelle Bray, a family physician with the 90th Medical Operations Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming.
“Patients and providers both have busy schedules which do not always allow for standard 7:30 a.m. -4:30 p.m. appointment hours,” Bray said. “Many patients feel that they need something very specific and are often frustrated when they spend time in a clinic waiting room for a long period of time only to have a short visit with their provider, and in some cases find that no physical exam was done or was very cursory and are frustrated that their medications could not have been refilled in another manner.”
Additionally, the current COVID-19 pandemic has forced an increase in staying at home and staying away from clinics or hospitals where potentially sick patients may be present forcing both providers and patients to explore telemedicine options, Bray said.
Lt. Col. Troy Novak, an administrator with the 5th Medical Group at Minot AFB, North Dakota, agreed.
“The sudden need for telemedicine arose in response to COVID-19,” he said. “Although the pandemic sparked a telemedicine rush, it was long overdue. Over the last two years, our medical group has identified that telemedicine has the potential to expand services to our Airmen and families.”
New and emerging technologies are helping make telemedicine more effective, Novak said.
“Now we are meeting the patient where they are using the same technologies they use to connect to friends and family. In this new environment, we are connecting our local and our national medical resources to our patients,” Novak added. “This shift is new to both provider and patient, but feedback is positive and it will be hard to go back to the traditional clinic visit.”
While technology has improved, there are still changes that can be made to make telemedicine even better and more user friendly, Peltzer said.
“We need to work on platforms for other telemedicine that are not blocked by government firewalls. Teleconferences such as Skype, Zoom, Google Meets, etc., should be considered to allow video conferences with patients if desired,” he said. “With incorporation of telemedicine, work hours and duty hours should be considered as well. If a provider is able and willing to work on telehealth medicine outside of traditional duty hours this allows more flexibility, and hours they are expected to be in the clinic should be considered. This allows an increase in flexibility of staff schedules and will likely decrease burnout and increase productivity.”
For the most part, patients seem to like the telemedicine option, said. Maj. Ryan Profitt, a physical therapist at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
“For the most part they seemed to be very surprised when I am calling to check up on them,” he said. “Phone call or video conferencing cannot replace face to face visits, or should I say hands on visits in physical therapy, but there is still benefit from the use of video and telephone evaluations.”
Many patients seem to appreciate the ability to communicate through telemedicine, Bray said.
“We have received overall very positive feedback,” she said. “Patients are very happy that they can have their needs addressed without having to drive a long commute, spend a significant time in a waiting room, or worry about child care needs during their appointment. In some cases patients do prefer to be seen face to face.”
While telemedicine offers many positive benefits for the patients and providers, Peltzer said there will always be a need to see patients in person for some things.
“Telemedicine should not be a primary way of treating patients, as many things can be missed. But, telemedicine can improve efficiency by allowing much of the historical portion of the interview to be completed in advance of the appointment,” he said. “Our staff can gain back some valuable time to address other patients’ needs by decreasing the ‘foot traffic’ and labor that would have been required by seeing all our patients face-to-face. By improving efficiency in our processes and being strategic over what types of care can be successfully completed thru telemedicine versus face-to-face, we can improve our delivery of healthcare to patients.”