Sitting in his home office, Taha Shipchandler, MD, meets with patients—both existing and new—at the click of his mouse. Communicating with them virtually either by video or audio, he can listen about their symptoms, make diagnoses and learn about their medical history.
Specialists rarely use telehealth to provide care to patients, but many had to quickly adjust during the COVID-19 pandemic, when routine visits and elective surgeries were halted.
Physicians from the Department of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine have been conducting visits virtually since the end of March, and they say the change has not only benefited patients but the future of telehealth for the team.
Shipchandler, associate professor of otolaryngology—head and neck surgery and chief of the Division of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in the department, said it’s been a smooth adjustment to virtual visits. Not being able to meet in person does pose some challenges with diagnoses, he said, but the switch has provided more convenience than before.
“It’s been a great way to reach out to patients around the state and Midwest for some of the rare conditions that we treat, or even the common conditions,” Shipchandler said.
Otolaryngology physicians specialize in providing care for disorders of the ear, nose, throat, head and neck. This includes the treatment of a wide range of conditions, such as swallowing difficulty, thyroid and skin cancer, cochlear implants, facial trauma reconstruction, cosmetic treatments, nose and sinuses problems and hearing and voice disorders.
When a patient is referred to an otolaryngology physician for a virtual visit, the front office staff first reaches out by phone. Later, medical assistants call to gather the patient’s medical history. Once the patient is in the system, they’re sent a link to a virtual “waiting room” where they can read background on the physician and see photos of them and their team prior to the start of the visit.
During a visit, Shipchandler said he, with input from his staff, might determine the patient needs to eventually meet with him in person or they need to schedule a time for a non-elective surgery.
Benjamin Anthony, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology—head and neck surgery, said beyond listening to patients during the visit, he’s able to ask them to move their smartphone camera closer to their mouth so he can inspect any problem areas, in lieu of a traditional physical exam.
“In the case of several patients, the virtual visit was the first time I met them, and we went straight from a virtual clinic to the operating room,” Anthony said.
More than half of the patients treated by the department’s Division of Laryngology reside outside of the Indianapolis metro area, said Anthony, who’s one of three fellowship-trained laryngologists in the department. For those patients, meeting virtually is a better alternative than a long drive.
Elisa Illing, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology—head and neck surgery, agreed.
“I’ve gotten the sense from the patients that they’ve been very satisfied and thankful that they don’t have to spend a whole day traveling to our clinic for a half-hour visit,” Illing said.
She said not only have virtual visits helped patients seek necessary care during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the advancement of telehealth will benefit the department long-term. Otolaryngology leaders hope to implement virtual visits after COVID-19, Illing said.
Several faculty physicians in the department, led by Shipchandler, published an article commentary in “Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery,” the official journal of the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. In it, they talked about the benefit to otolaryngologists embracing telehealth in order to broaden patient care and access.
Shipchandler and Anthony said the pandemic has pushed the health care system as a whole to think differently about patient care. That’s especially true for specialists who may have never thought telehealth could be successful, Shipchandler said, adding he’s appreciative of the department leading the charge in a medical specialty where virtual visits are uncommon.