Telehealth welcomed in Covid lockdown

Telehealth worked well during lockdown and patients at a Dunedin medical centre welcomed virtual appointments, research has found.

When New Zealand moved to Covid-19 Alert Level 4 last year general practice closed its doors to almost all in-person appointments as an infection control measure.

Once lockdown restrictions eased, a group of Dunedin School of Medicine academics surveyed patients of a city medical centre to assess whether they liked what for many was a new way of receiving healthcare.

Their results, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, suggested that the answer was a resounding yes.

Of the 259 eligible patients 108, 42%, responded, and those patients gave a 95% overall satisfaction rating for their telehealth care.

The doctor having good verbal communication skills was critical for patients having a good experience and the process worked best when the GPs seemed confident, took time to explain concepts and had a pre-existing relationships with the patient.

"The GP was equally as thorough but asked more questions as I couldn’t see her," one patient said, while another reported: "It was not a perfect situation but didn’t have a problem with it."

The clinic which took part in the study did not wish to be named.

The article concluded that the switch from face-to-face to virtual consultations had been viable and acceptable, within the context of a pandemic.

"Most patients reported increased or the same convenience and either easier or no difference in communication with their doctor.

"Patients were evenly divided across preferring the old system and preferring telephone-first or being unsure, and patients were equally satisfied with virtual consultations."

WellSouth medical director Carol Atmore, one of the article authors, said as she had previously worked on the West Coast, where distance meant telehealth was more frequently used, for her personally the transition as a working GP to seeing patients virtually had been an easy one.

"For me the process was fine, and if the person wasn’t comfortable I would say that I thought they needed to come in for a face-to-face appointment, but I think it has a lot to recommend it."

Her patients found telehealth highly convenient, Dr Atmore said.

"I think as doctors we forget how much of a hassle it can be to leave work or leave home, pick up the kids, drive to the practice, find somewhere to park, and then discover we are running late, to the point where it can take two to three hours for a 15-minute appointment."

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