How TeleMedicine is Changing the Palliative Care Industry
August 4, 2020
Traditionally, a key element of quality palliative care is human contact. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, palliative care teams across the nation have had to go virtual. While many initially viewed telemedicine as a hurdle, experts are now suggesting that it could be a powerful tool to enhance seriously ill patients’ care experiences, even after the pandemic is over.
The New Normal
Palliative care is a patient-centered approach in which doctors, nurses, and social workers support people with serious illnesses and their families. While palliative care teams focus on alleviating physical symptoms of pain, they may also provide emotional support. They will often invite patients and families to discuss how the illness is affecting their lives and can help to ease their fears or anxieties.
Given that palliative care tackles such personal matters, teams often place importance on being physically present with patients and their family members. Extending a comforting hand or offering a tissue are simple acts that go a long way when supporting patients and their loved ones. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these physical connections were often replaced by virtual ones. Palliative care teams began using telemedicine (the practice of caring for patients remotely, usually via video conferences) as a way to interact with patients, and also to facilitate meetings with their family members.
While palliative care teams initially were hesitant that virtual meetings would be "nothing like the real thing," the benefits of telemedicine soon proved to be undeniable. During a pandemic, medical professionals and social workers can facilitate meetings between seriously ill or dying patients and their loved ones via smartphone. Eliminating the need to go into a hospital or nursing facility to visit a patient significantly reduces one’s risk of exposure to the virus. Plus, family members who live far away from their ill loved ones can connect instantly, despite the distance. Telemedicine also has potential to address the nursing and home-based care worker shortages in the U.S. that have been exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a growing aging population and a shortage of nurses, checking in on patients virtually could allow caregivers to achieve more with less resources.
A Fine Balance
While telemedicine has obvious advantages during a health crisis, medical teams are coming to realize that virtual meetings can play an important role in palliative care, even after the pandemic comes to an end. For example, teams can use telemedicine to conduct advance care planning conversations with their patients virtually. This can allow individuals to express their end-of-life wishes in the comfort of their own homes, without having to drive to the hospital and sit in a waiting room before being seen.
However telemedicine shapes the new palliative care landscape, it is likely that it will complement, rather than completely replace, in-person visits. Providers will certainly continue to take care of patients in person, but telemedicine could offer an opportunity to better address their patients’ personal needs and connect them to their loved ones when they need them most.