Women Pioneering Telehealth in SA: An interview with Dr Lee

Women Pioneering Telehealth in SA: An interview with Dr Lee

Telehealth has been likened to the resurrection of house calls. It’s inefficient and impractical for doctors to visit patients at home, but they are still able to offer home-based care via a screen. 

Although Telehealth has been around for decades, it’s only since the Coronavirus pandemic that doctors have started offering virtual consults at their practice. With a real-world use case proving the usability and power of Telehealth to deliver healthcare, more and more practitioners are implementing Telehealth solutions as a standard offering at their practices. 

Dr Claudia Lee is one of the early adopters of Telehealth. She spoke to Healthbridge about the transition to offering a hybrid of in-person and virtual consults, the impact on her patients and practice and what she believes the future holds for Telehealth. 

 

How long have you been using Telehealth and why did you decide to offer it at your practice?

I’ve been using Healthbridge’s billing and electronic medical record (EMR) system for the past 4 years. When COVID-19 broke and we all went into lockdown, I was asked to be part of a cohort of doctors that were piloting Healthbridge’s Telehealth offering. I agreed and since then, I’ve continued using it and can’t see myself stopping – it works for me and my patients. 

 

So, your patients readily embraced Telehealth?

Yes. From a patient perspective, it saves them time, petrol to get here and general inconvenience. Most of my patients have been with me for 10 – 15 years and I pride myself in knowing my patients and having a healthy doctor-patient relationship with them. It matters because when it comes to COVID-19 triage or treating common illnesses, it saves a huge amount of time and effort to consult virtually. My patients have quick and easy access to care. 

 

What about new or first-time patients? 

They too had quick and easy access to care, especially COVID related consults. It would be ideal to have that initial in-person consult where you can spend 45 minutes to an hour getting to know the patient, but I think the pandemic is proof that we don’t live in the ideal world. 

COVID-19 is the first of many, much more serious pandemics. If we can take anything away from this experience as doctors, it’s that we have to be much more agile when it comes to Telehealth because it is safer for everybody. You’re not exposing your staff, your patients or yourself and your own families. 

 

What impact has using Telehealth had on your time?

It’s made it possible to practically treat patients outside of practice hours. When it was necessary, I was able to consult with patients from 6am until 10pm and over weekends. It’s made a dramatic impact on the number of patients I can help in a day. 

From a work-life balance perspective, Telehealth has also given me options about how I spend my time. I can offer practice-based consults in the mornings, and Telehealth consults in the afternoon, where I also get to spend more time with my children. I think for too long we’ve been under the impression that it’s ‘unprofessional’ to have any overlap between your work and your personal life, or family. If anything, COVID has proven that there is overlap in the human experience – and time has taken on a different value. 

COVID has set in motion a fundamental shift in how businesses operate, and the same applies to medical practices. 

 

Some of the doctor resistance to Telehealth across the world is the drop in income for virtual consults. Do you have an opinion on that? 

Every doctor will decide for themselves how much they should be compensated for their knowledge and skills and expertise. Telehealth adds another dimension to how you could look at it simply, because we can’t yet justify charging the same rate for a virtual consult. 

For doctors who want to increase profits, Telehealth is potentially an additional service and revenue stream. For those doctors who aren’t in it for the money, it’s a cost-effective tool to help more people. It comes down to knowing your patients. If your patients are able and willing to pay for convenience, Telehealth might even improve your billing. 

If your practice sees majority less affluent patients, Telehealth saves them money and retains them at your practice – increasing the likelihood of sustaining your practice in the long term. 

 

Do you find that some consults are more suited to Telehealth? 

By and large I find that treating chronic patients works well with Telehealth. Issuing repeat prescriptions, follow up and communicating test results are all quicker and easier to do without needing the patient to come in. 

I also find that patients with skin rashes, for example, works well for Telehelath consults. As long as a patient can focus a camera you can make a diagnosis. We forget that as doctors, we’ve spent years honing our skills so that you can see when a patient is in respiratory distress via a screen and then you either send them to the hospital or ask them to come in. The ability to physically be in the same room as your patient doesn’t necessarily mean better care. We’ve developed skills and intuition working in clinical practice and now it’s about being able to interpret those cues virtually. 

 

What would you say to doctors who were thinking about implementing Telehealth? 

I would say do it. My whole practice is sitting in the cloud and I access it from anywhere on my Macbook. I have patient files, billing information and Telehealth at my fingertips. I would advise doctors to start and try until you find a system that works for you. Start somewhere simple if you want to – find a solution that allows you to issue prescriptions digitally. Even that in itself is a great way to realising the value of having information available when treating patients. 

My secretary works from home and can manage my practice. She books appointments, communicates with patients, collects payments and issues invoices without having to be at the practice. It’s been incredible to witness how technology really does make healthcare accessible – for patients, doctors and their staff. 

We will never replace in-person consults, but Telehealth helps us to reduce waste in our lives, wasting time in waiting rooms and traffic, wasting money on goods and services that could be digital. Telehealth is a powerful way to reduce waste – from a GP practice all the way to reducing waste on a public health level and we have to leverage it now as part of the new norm. 

To find out more on how you can take your practice digitally, click here.

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