People who might have COVID-19 are benefiting from virtual healthcare. Everyone else might, too.

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Hospitals and doctors’ offices across the United States are offering to screen patients remotely for symptoms of COVID-19—by phone or video—in order to avoid filling waiting rooms and potentially spreading the virus to uninfected people. The rapid and widespread adaptation of telemedicine may help patients during the pandemic, and will almost certainly help other people down the road, says Janet Rico, assistant dean of nursing graduate programs at Northeastern.

Janet Rico, assistant dean of graduate programs and associate clinical professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Northeastern file photo

During any remote visit, healthcare professionals and patients would use a privacy-protected program to chat, likely by video, Rico says. During a screening for COVID-19 specifically, the doctor, nurse-practitioner, physician assistant, nurse, or other healthcare professional would ask patients to take their own temperature and guide them through the process of doing so, Rico says. They’d ask the patient about other symptoms of the disease, including a dry cough and shortness of breath, to determine whether the patient should go to a physical office for testing or self-isolate at home.

For patients who might require more frequent remote visits for other medical diagnoses, other equipment—such as blood glucose monitoring, or blood pressure cuffs, for example—can also be used at home to give healthcare professionals a fuller picture of a patient’s health, Rico says.

Remote visits aren’t new in the U.S., but they’re not used widely by patients for any number of reasons, including poor internet connection, lack of insurance reimbursement, or a dearth of awareness about the service by healthcare providers and patients alike, Rico says.

She and a team of researchers and clinicians in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern have been for the last year developing a program to teach nursing students and healthcare professionals the best practices for setting up and implementing virtual care.

The Virtual Care Certificate program, which will launch on a trial basis this fall, consists of short, online courses that cover topics such as the psychology of virtual communications, social media in healthcare, and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in healthcare, Rico says.

“There’s a huge need for this in healthcare,” Rico says of virtual care. “This pandemic has brought it some visibility; we know that bringing someone in who potentially has the virus could endanger everyone else around them.”

The $8.3 billion spending bill Congress passed this month to respond to the pandemic solves at least one of those problems for part of the population: The bill opened up telemedicine care to people on Medicare.

But the need for remote care goes far beyond the immediate crisis caused by COVID-19, Rico says. As a nurse-practitioner who cares for adult patients, she says she sees plenty of people who could benefit from the widespread implementation of remote care all the time, and she’s hopeful that its current adoption for COVID-19 might make it more accessible for people after the disease subsides.

“People who are elderly or frail, people with mobility, psychiatric, or cognitive challenges—these are people who could really use it,” she says.

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