NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Charles Babich has been treated by Dr. Frank Sonnenberg for the past 25 years, but they weren’t even in the same room for the most recent visit.

“Dr. Sonnenberg is over the top in terms of taking time and explaining and answering questions,” Babich said. “The appointment was just perfect in every way in terms of time, explanation and going over everything.”

Telehealth has been a safe way for doctors such as Sonnenberg, a professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and chief medical informatics officer at Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health Rutgers Medical Group, to “see” their patients. It has grown increasingly common with the advent of Doxy.me, Zoom, Google Meets and other videoconferencing programs.

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country starting in March, and social distancing and stay-at-home orders became the new normal, the use of telehealth has sharply increased.

Safety aside – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of telehealth as the best way to protect patients and staff from COVID-19 – one of the other reasons for its increased use is that several insurance companies have begun to cover telehealth “visits.”

Medicare, Medicaid and other commercial policies are allowing billing for telephone encounters with patient, Sonnenberg said.

Sonnenberg said there are other advantages to telehealth such as allowing patients to “see” their doctors afterhours or allowing doctors to evaluate patients who have difficulty traveling to a doctor’s office.

“Right now, I have a lot of patients who are physically disabled,” he said. “They can’t walk, or they have no transportation, so it allows them to continue getting health care even though they can’t come to the office.”

Whether telehealth remains a staple of the American health care system after the pandemic subsides remains to be seen. For now, even COVID-19 patients who are on the road to recovery can benefit from it, Sonnenberg said.

“We can give them a device called a pulse oximeter, which measures their oxygen level in their blood,” Sonnenberg said. “People can check in on them several times a day, but they’re not taking up a hospital bed, which first of all, are in very short supply, and second of all, we prefer not to have infected patients in the hospital setting if we don’t need to.”

Although telehealth seems tailor-suited for doctors to remotely diagnose, say, rashes, gout and insect bites, it can’t do everything.

“The most obvious limitation is that you can’t physically examine the patient,” Sonnenberg said. “You can look at them. You can detect … in the way they talk if they are short of breath. You can get their facial expression and determine how much pain they’re in, but it’s a very limited exam.”

He also said that people lacking the technology to make full use of telehealth services serves as a disadvantage, especially for poor and elderly patients that do not have access to a computer or smartphone and are limited to only a telephone call.

“A lot of people weren’t convinced of the value of it, and the emergency situations kind of forced everybody to deal with it immediately and completely,” Sonnenberg said. “I think now we’re focusing on situations where it has advantages. It won’t completely replace office visits, but it will definitely become a regular part of our practice.”