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July 9, 2020
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The silver lining among clouds Part IV

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
May 15, 2020

This is part four in a multi-part series. The Community Voice is exploring some of the “silver linings” found in the dark cloud, that being the Covid-19 pandemic. I looked at environmental impacts in Part I. My News Team partner Stephanie Derammelaere explored how the pandemic has inspired people into giving back in Parts II and III. This time I’m looking at the use of video conferencing, as a tool helping us stay connected while sheltering in place.

The use of video teleconferencing is not new! It’s been around since AT&T started research on the technology in 1956. They introduced their “Picture phone” at the Worlds Fair in 1960. Initial attempts were often clunky and not user friendly. Bulky and costly equipment to set-up and delivering poor quality, improvements were slow through the 70s. As more players entered the field, such as CISCO and IBM in the 80s, the quality started to improve and costs continued to go down. By the early 90s a PC based system was available, and this too lowered the cost.

In the 2000s video conferencing became available on the internet thru applications like Skype and iChat. By 2010, iCloud-based applications allowed us to have these programs not just on our desktop, but also on mobile devices like smartphones, laptops and iPads. Zoom, one of the most popular current applications started up in 2011. Yet for all the progress, cost reductions and ease of use progress – video conferencing was primarily being used for business and training purposes until recently. When asked why use wasn’t more widespread, one recent convert to the technology said, “to be honest, we just didn’t have a need for it.” 

The field of Telemedicine has been growing for years but primarily within larger hospitals and health care systems. They’ve used it for remote illness monitoring which gave them the ability to follow-up on patients recently discharged to home care. This allowed them to track patient vitals and progress without having patients make multiple trips for in hospital or office visits. For remote areas, it was also used because local doctors or hospitals weren’t readily available. Perhaps one of the biggest uses was for enhanced medical training. This allowed medical practitioners to collaborate in real time and share information and best practices on a wide variety of medical issues or research. Finally, in disaster management it allowed medical personnel to be involved on-scene without having to be physically present.

But Telemedicine isn’t without drawbacks. Until recently small practices couldn’t afford to participate. There was a high cost of set up, especially if you needed advance features in your system. And Medicare and insurers often didn’t cover the visit or if they did, not at the same payment level as an in-office appointment. It was only in 2019 that Medicare equalized the payment for in-office and video teleconference appointment. During the pandemic, Medicare has added more procedures that qualify for video conferencing payments.

Also, technical problems either for the patient or the physician can be frustrating especially if they don’t have access to technical expertise to set-up or troubleshoot problems. Perhaps the biggest drawback is the lack of personal interaction. Obviously, touch is missing and the quality may not be good enough for a visual inspection of the patient. Physicians fear missing unvocalized problems because of these issues and a lack of seeing body language cues.

A silver lining of the pandemic has been introduction of video conferencing technology to a wider audience. For example, I downloaded Zoom on my phone to conduct a video conference follow-up appointment with my surgeon. Doing so avoided a not recommended trip to the city or the choice of going without the follow-up. Having learned how to use the technology, I now use it for church services and social interactions. I’m not alone. Many folks have reported similar benefits for a wide variety of events and meetings including many non-profits serving marginalized communities such as seniors or LGBTQ support services.

If you haven’t downloaded or used a video conferencing application, you might want to consider doing so. As with any product, check around and do your research to find the one that best meets your needs. In any case, while sheltered in place, stay connected somehow with friends and family if you can. A phone call, an IM message, or a letter or card by mail, may be just the touch they and you need, to make your day.