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The 5-minute doctor visit: How telemedicine is growing in East TN

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating greater demand for and availability of medical visits over the Internet.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The sudden increase in the need to talk to patients remotely has East Tennessee doctors calling COVID-19 both a “threat” and a “game changer” when it comes to how they practice medicine.

“I think this will revolutionize medicine in many ways,” said Dr. William Horton, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in the Knoxville area.

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Even though telehealth has been around for years, headlines on the website for the American Medical Association explain the impact of the recent CARES Act passed in March by Congress.  Key among the changes, it relaxes rules governing telemedicine and expands options for telehealth beyond patients living in rural communities.

Credit: John Becker
It took about one minute to log into this secure telehealth site.

“Obviously there are limitations.  I can’t reach through the screen and examine you…I can’t look in your ears, I can’t look in your throat.  But a lot of what we do depends more on the patient’s history that it does on the examination, so in a lot of ways this (video chat) can replace the office visit,” said Dr. Horton.

Credit: John Becker

Looking into the future, even when social distancing is relaxed, one family practice physician suspects telemedicine could make up a big chunk of his daily “visits.”

“I would say conservatively, 30 to 40 percent,” said Dr. Luke Chesney with Summit Medical Group in Knoxville.

“It’s the silver lining coming out of this (COVID-19) as we are figuring out how to do things in a way we didn’t really do before…I think it will absolutely have a role going forward,” said Dr. Chesney.

Both doctors interviewed by 10News are less than one month into using telemedicine for all but their most urgent cases.

“It does help us…be a little more efficient and see more people without shortchanging the time we have actually spending with them (patients),” explained Dr. Chesney.

Dr. Horton agreed, saying he might spend anywhere from 5 minutes on the video chat, to more than 30 minutes depending on the problem(s) facing an individual patient.

In the case of Dr. Horton, he provided an initial invitation link via a text message. Clicking on that link takes the user to a secure site where they enter their name. In moments the doctor appears on screen.

Only for a few moments during the 13-minute call did the video chat offer a rainbow hue across the doctor’s face.  It appeared to clear up with a better connection.  In all, it took less than one minute to go from text invitation to talking in real time with Dr. Horton.

“I think this will revolutionize medicine in many ways,” said Dr. Horton.

Both doctors say the virtual visits are a fraction of the cost of in-person consultations and that is another reason they are hearing favorable feedback from patients.