The Rise of Telemedicine in the PA Profession

Once a novelty and an outlier in the medical community, the practice of telemedicine has now become mainstream. And as the populace continues to choose telemedicine in greater numbers — with COVID-19 certainly a contributing factor — it is imperative that PAs adjust accordingly.

What Is Telemedicine? 

Virtual medicine and telemedicine are terms that refer to medical services provided remotely, through the use of technology.

Some people interchange the terms “telemedicine” and “telehealth”; however, telemedicine is actually a subset of the broader practice of telehealth.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) defines telemedicine as: 

The practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance, over a telecommunications infrastructure, between a patient at an originating (spoke) site and a physician, or other practitioner licensed to practice medicine, at a distant (hub) site

Though once practiced solely over the phone, telemedicine is no longer limited by this constraint. Telemedicine is now also practiced by digital video so that practitioners can see the patient.

The Growth of Telemedicine for PAs

In 2019, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) provided “first time data on Certified PAs’ telemedical practice pattern.” In that report, they stated that the use of telemedicine made up 9.2% of PA appointments. 

Additionally, the NCCPA reported: “In 2019, Certified PAs working in Psychiatry (25%), Primary Care (11%), Internal Medicine (11%) and Neurology (11%) reported the highest usage of telemedicine.”

It is important to note that those numbers are pre-COVID numbers. When speaking about the pandemic’s effect on telemedicine and the PA profession, NCCPA President and CEO Dawn Morton-Rias, Ed.D., PA-C said:

“Before COVID-19, the use of telemedicine by Certified PAs was tepid. When the numbers are counted, I think it’ll be safe to say that after the start of the pandemic, the technology has been more widely embraced, and has afforded many Certified PAs with the opportunity to continue doing what they’ve always done — provide safe, high-quality access to medical care. We anticipate that PA telemedical practice statistics will continue to increase in 2020 and beyond, owing to shifts in medical care delivery due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” 

The Challenges of Telemedicine

With any new innovation, technology, or change of approach, there are always challenges. Telemedicine is no exception. Some of the more notable challenges are: 

  • Telemedicine doesn’t allow a PA to perform the physical exam often needed for a complete and accurate diagnosis.
  • Overcoming the perception that a remote appointment is impersonal and that a patient is not receiving the same care as he or she would with an office visit.
  • Technical training and proper equipment for health care providers.
  • The on-demand care provided from telemedical companies can contribute to the erosion of care continuity. 
  • A patient’s lack of technical knowledge when trying to utilize the telemedicine platform.

With an ever growing demand for remote medical services, PAs and PA students will need to prepare for these challenges and anticipate future challenges in order to transition successfully into a new era of medical practice. 

The Benefits of Telemedicine

Though there are challenges with telemedicine (such as the ones previously mentioned), there is tremendous upside for patients and health care providers when it comes to remote medical visits. Here are a few that are noteworthy:

  •  A benefit for PAs: In many ways, telemedicine is the future. This is not to say that in-person care is obsolete — in-person medical care will always be needed. However, with continued technological advances, the opportunities telemedicine affords will continue to grow. 
  • A benefit for PAs and patients: Telemedicine increases access between patient and medical care provider. With telemedicine, geographical distance is no longer an obstacle. 
  • A benefit for patients: Convenience. If a patient needs services like nutrition counseling, a medication prescription, treatment advice for a non-emergency illness, or mental health counseling, they can do so from the convenience of their home. No drive to the office; no waiting room with other patients. 
  • A benefit for patients: Lower costs. Because of reduced overhead expenses, telemedicine is less expensive than in-person medical appointments. 

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