As any American who’s had to fax a doctor’s office in the 21st century or fill out multiple paper forms with the same information at each appointment knows, the U.S. health care system has long been slow to adopt technologies standard in virtually every other setting. In a small way, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing the medical establishment into the present.
The technology allowing for remote doctor visits isn’t new. Zoom may be the new big thing, but video calling services like Skype have existed for more than a decade, and Alexander Graham Bell was granted the first patent for the telephone in 1876.
But doctors largely haven’t taken advantage of them, due to both monetary concerns and regulatory burdens. In addition, medical training and culture has prioritized face-to-face consults ― the “laying on of hands” that ancient Greek physician Hippocrates spoke of ― no matter what their health issues may be.
Medical providers, health insurance companies and government programs like Medicare and Medicaid have been resistant to the widespread adoption of technology outside of narrow uses. Those include Medicare patients in rural areas with few doctors being able to speak with remote physicians via video conferencing facilities located within medical clinics and employers offering little-used video hotlines with doctors and nurses as part of their health benefit programs for workers.
Then the coronavirus pandemic came and, with it, social distancing and lockdown guidelines that made traveling to a doctor’s office a risk, perhaps even more so than delaying visits, especially for patients whose ages or chronic health conditions make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
“All of a sudden practices have the ‘Oh, crap’ moment and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do this over the weekend,’” said Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Changes that we think...