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How Coronavirus Will Change Doctor’s Visits

Person using phone to talk to provider face to face (telemedicine)

You finally scheduled a needed medical appointment, and you want to be prepared. A lot has changed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — especially in hospitals and doctor’s offices — and you’re unsure about how it will impact your care. At Penn Medicine, you can expect a few key changes to help you feel safe and confident in this new normal. 

“It’s important for us to make care available in a safe way and take advantage of what we've learned over the last few months,” says radiologist Mitchell Schnall, MD, PhD, FACR, leader of Penn’s Ambulatory Resurgence Committee. “The committee’s purpose is to provide guidance and support to our ambulatory (outpatient) practices as patients return. We're focused on creating guidelines, changing infrastructure, developing cleaning standards, and most importantly, designing and teaching new ways to work at our more than 200 ambulatory practices.”

Dr. Schnall outlines what you can expect at routine medical appointments going forward.

When You Need an In-Person Visit Versus a Virtual Doctor’s Visit

As COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) developed into a pandemic, telemedicine went from a novelty to a core care model — with good results. 

“Telemedicine lends itself well to follow-up visits. People can see their provider, share pictures of scars and post-surgical wounds, and get general medical advice,” notes Dr. Schnall. “One great thing about Penn Medicine is that you can go to your local Penn-affiliated facility for testing and then meet with your doctor online to go over the results.”

Dr. Schnall says you’ll see a telemedicine status quo for follow-up care at Penn. You can also expect virtual doctor’s visits for first appointments — even for complex diseases — and referrals. 

“The initial visit is usually about talking to the patient, understanding their medical history, and next steps,” he says. “We can do that via telemedicine.” 

Penn will send you a link to their BlueJeans (video conferencing) app before your telemedicine appointment. You use BlueJeans to virtually connect with your provider. Your provider may also monitor you remotely if you’re dealing with health issues such as a milder COVID-19 infection or heart failure.

But there are times when an in-person appointment is critical to your care. Expect to physically see your provider for:

  • Medical concerns that require examinations
  • Procedures such as biopsies 

Dr. Schnall says to expect more in-person visit availability as telemedicine reduces how many people come in for care and decreases foot traffic in the hospitals. 

Four Changes to Watch for at Penn Medicine Appointments

When receiving care at Penn, Dr. Schnall says you should expect these four changes:

1. More digital communication

Penn Medicine is dramatically increasing its repertoire of digital communication tools. 

“The traditional outpatient environment is very provider-centric. The patients are there when you need to see them, and it takes a fair amount of time for patients to go through that process,” explains Dr. Schnall. “Now, it will be more of an interactive process on the front and back end. Taking advantage of technology, we’re going to digitize most of the process.”

myPennMedicine is one tool that patients and providers have been using for several years — and now it will be part of the appointment process. myPennMedicine is a secure, online portal that allows you to do many administrative health care tasks from the comfort of your home.

You can use myPennMedicine to:

  • Access your medical history
  • View labs and other test results
  • Request prescription refills or physician referrals
  • Send messages directly to your providers
  • Sign documents
  • Pay bills

And just like at the airport, you can now check in online for your appointment using a new myPennMedicine feature called Pre Check-In. With Pre Check-In, you fill out needed health care forms on your device instead of in your provider’s office. You’re able to confirm or update contact information, medications, allergies, and current health issues. 

Completing Pre Check-in before your appointment reduces physical contact with others and time spent in a waiting room.

“We want you to get as close to ready for a doctor interaction as possible before you actually come into the center,” says Dr. Schnall.

2. Less time spent in your provider’s office

Dr. Schnall says all these efforts will mean faster patient visits. 

“Streamlining the process allows us to get you started on your doctor's visit quicker. And we'll wrap those visits in a flow that includes a lot of outreach and communication pre- and post-visit,” he notes. “It also allows us to take more staff off-site, so we have less density of people here. That reduces the number of personal interactions and opportunities for COVID-19 exposure.”

3. New use of text apps

Remember when restaurants used to text your phone to tell you your table was ready? Penn is experimenting with similar technology to guide people to their appointments on time.

“You’ll get texts reminding you about your appointment and updating your appointment time. In some locations, you’ll also be able to text to say you’ve arrived, and we’ll text back to let you know when you should come in,” describes Dr. Schnall. “You'll be able to walk right into an exam room and not have to check in or do anything else. It gives you an opportunity to have just-in-time arrival for your appointment.”

As for all those empty waiting rooms? “We plan to use these physical spaces more effectively for patient care. Their repurposing will allow us to extend weekday hours and add more weekend hours.”

4. Increased safety measures

Penn’s new safety measures include:

  • More cleaning and visible cleaning staff
  • Fewer and smaller waiting areas 
  • Physical distancing in waiting rooms and patient care areas
  • Masks or face coverings on all staff, patients and visitors 
  • Additional personal protective equipment (PPE) — such as masks, gloves, and face shields — for health care providers
  • Visitor passes for visitors that can accompany you to an appointment or procedure

“I absolutely believe that we have a safe environment,” says Dr. Schnall. “We did antibody testing, and the number of positive antibody results was less in Penn providers than it was in the general population. That potentially means there has been less COVID-19 exposure here. I absolutely think it's safer for me to come to work than almost any other place I go.”

How You Can Optimize In-Person Routine Medical Appointments

Dr. Schnall says a cooperative attitude will make the care environment safer for patients and providers. Some tips for making your visit run smoothly include:

  • Wear a mask for your visit.
  • Practice social distancing in your provider’s facility. 
  • Be clear on visitor and COVID-19 policies before you arrive.
  • Complete Pre Check-In on myPennMedicine. (You can do this up to four days before your appointment.)

Dr. Schnall anticipates this new patient experience is here to stay. “You're going to see in-person visits intermixed with telehealth visits. The number of in-person visits you need will definitely go down.”

Learn more about telemedicine appointments during coronavirus or sign up for myPennMedicine.

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