With the threat of coronavirus requiring social distancing, more doctor’s offices and health care facilities are offering virtual meetings with patients, both for those who suspect they have the virus and for those with other health problems. The Federal Communications Commission even created the COVID-19 Telehealth Program to provide funding that helps health care providers establish “telehealth” or “telemedicine” options for their patients.

Much of the information about meeting virtually for health care has been positive, as it is a safer way to conduct health evaluations during a pandemic. But can a diagnosis via these technological means be trusted?

What is telemedicine?

There has long been a push to increase options for telemedicine or telehealth, the terms most often used to describe clinical diagnosis, treatment and monitoring delivered using technology to exchange information. Most people think of videoconferencing with a doctor, but the term telemedicine also applies to remote patient monitoring, while telehealth if often used more broadly to also include phone calls, file sharing and health monitoring apps on smartphones.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine has been used for patients who suspect they have contracted coronavirus, patients with condition who should not or do not want to risk exposure, hospitalized patients who need to consult with a doctor in a remote location, and even providers who are quarantined but want to continue to see patients.

Identifying the risks

Despite the benefits, there are several areas of concern when it comes to getting health care via telemedicine:

    • Creation of a physician-patient relationship: As different states have created laws to allow telemedicine, the definition of what constitutes a physician-patient relationship by remote technology isn’t always clear. For example, in Illinois the definition of patient-physician relationship is not directly addressed in the statute. Each state creates its own laws, so the definitions are not uniform.
    • Obtaining informed consent: Clear communication is another problem. It may be difficult to ensure informed consent via technology – a guarantee that the patient as full knowledge of the possible risks and benefits of the treatment the doctor suggested and the patient has agreed to.
  • Technology limitations and malfunctions: Symptoms that a doctor could clearly observe during an in-person appointment may not be as evident via telemedicine due to limitations or malfunctions with the technology in use, which also could prevent the accurate or timely transmission of records and other data needed for diagnosis or treatment.

These risks could all lead to misdiagnosis or other forms of medical malpractice. While telemedicine may help you avoid contraction of the coronavirus, it is important to be aware that there are other drawbacks to this method of health care.