Dr. Ami Bhatt: Massachusetts is saving lives with telemedicine

The following is a guest commentary written by Dr. Ami Bhatt, director of outpatient cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Bhatt is also the chairwoman of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign in Boston.

Massachusetts is protecting its citizens by extending the timeline for social distancing, closing schools for the remainder of the academic year, and requiring that people wear a face mask when going out in public.

Many of us have accommodated to this practice over the past several weeks: socializing via video chats, communicating by phone and social media and interacting with others only when absolutely required.

Importantly, in the face of social distancing, healthcare will continue in our state. Urgent care will be provided, but equally importantly, for the weeks and months to come, routine medical care will not come to a standstill. We are working around the clock throughout the state to offer telemedicine: high quality remote care, directly to you, in your home, as you need it.

Earlier in this pandemic, the risk of exponential rise in coronavirus cases prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to issue a public order under his state of emergency declaration demanding that all commercial insurers and the Group Insurance Commission (health coverage for state employees) cover all medically necessary telehealth services whether by audio or video connection. This could not have come at a better time. Telemedicine allows patients to stay home to receive routine or elective care and allows clinicians to practice social distancing.

“By enabling patients to remain at home, rapid treatment delivery can be provided,” said Marylou Sudders, who is heading up the state’s coronavirus command center. “We can adhere to social distancing protocols; we can optimize efficiency and conserve resources.”

Interestingly, Massachusetts has lagged national rates of adoption of telehealth services. We are seeing this change during the pandemic, as institutions and companies ensure that healthcare will continue in the face of social distancing.

As the chair of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign in Boston, and a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, protecting patients and clinicians is essential to me. Some of our patients are high risk if they contract COVID-19. Many are elderly, and social distancing is incredibly challenging in a cardiology clinic waiting room. Through telemedicine, our doctors and nurses can provide care from their homes and remain healthy so that when their colleagues in the hospital are inevitably exposed, we have a reserve of physicians and nurses at the ready for their call of duty.

Our patients need to continue to receive care. Fear of exposure to COVID-19 should not stop patients from contacting their physicians and nurses and reporting symptoms, whether related to the coronavirus or other underlying chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease. With telemedicine, whether scheduling a phone call or a video visit, cardiac patients can continue to receive routine, essential medical care. If we do not promote this connection, we will see an influx of cardiac complications from chronic disease in the months to come. I suspect many have already seen this trend begin. Restoring our heart patients’ comfort in accessing care when they need it is essential during the state of emergency and beyond.

Once the pandemic subsides, schools, restaurants and businesses may eventually return to normal scheduling. Hospitals, meanwhile, will need to continue to practice clinical distancing for many months to come to avoid a rebound epidemic. The presence of a well-established telemedicine practice will allow people to continue to receive excellent care while staying in the communities where they live, even when the state of emergency ends. Individuals who continue to receive virtual care as an adjunct to in-person care will have more time to attend work, engage with their community and contribute to reviving their local economy.

Massachusetts is saving lives by ensuring social distancing and promoting virtual health care. Fortunately, systems like telemedicine, established in this time of crisis, will also survive and help promote recovery in our state when the time comes.

Ami B. Bhatt, MD, FACC
Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School
Director, Outpatient Services, Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center
Chair, Go Red for Women, Boston