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SLU, Wash U Medical Schools To Prepare Doctors For New Era of Telemedicine

More providers are treating patients over video chats and phone calls as concerns about the coronavirus keep people from visiting clinics.
Janice Chang | NPR
The coronavirus pandemic prompted St. Louis-area medical schools to create new telemedicine curriculum for their students

Spurred by the coronavirus, top medical schools in the St. Louis region are making telemedicine part of their curriculum for training new doctors.

Telemedicine has surged in popularity during the pandemic because it minimizes the risk for both doctors and patients spreading the virus. Medical experts now say telemedicine will prove to be more than a temporary fix, and instead, an essential tool for current and future doctors.

Prior to the pandemic, few medical schools in the U.S. required students to be trained in telemedicine. St. Louis University’s School of Medicine had few classes and clinicals focusing on telemedicine, and Washington University’s School of Medicine had none dedicated to the practice. 

Telemedicine education was a low priority at Wash U's med school because it was seen as an anomaly, said Associate Dean of Medical Student Education Tom De Fer. In-person care has been the way medical students traditionally are trained to be doctors

But the pandemic has increased patient demand for telemedicine, and federal regulators in March relaxed restrictions on how doctors can provide telehealth services, at least temporarily during the national emergency. Insurance providers, including Medicaid and Medicare, also began covering the costs of online doctor visits. 

These moves have prompted leaders at Wash U’s and SLU’s medical schools to incorporate telemedicine in their curriculums.

The pandemic, along with a lack of necessary telemedicine technology, guidelines and faculty experience, forced Wash U to stop all clinicals this spring. As a result, De Fer said the medical school plans to add curriculum teaching students how to give care to patients over video calls this fall.

“We know that there will continue to be way more telemedicine visits than there would be otherwise, and we don’t want our students to miss out on that opportunity,” he said.

De Fer said that eventually telemedicine will become yet another modern convenience that patients will expect from health care providers, similar to how many doctors’ offices have evening hours.

Pandemic spurs telemedicine efforts

The pandemic helped introduce more doctors to telemedicine, but practices need to be refined to teach students, according to Alison Whelan, chief medical education officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. The association advises over 100 medical schools, including those at SLU and Wash U.

Whelan said she is working with a task force to develop plans for how medical schools across the county can add telemedicine to their curriculum this fall.

Since March, Whelan said most medical schools in the association had at least some clinics that began using telemedicine tools.

One example was SLU’s psychiatry clinic.

Anjan Bhattacharyya, associate professor of psychiatry and internal medicine, said the pandemic “massively” jumpstarted his department’s telemedicine endeavors. 

Before, one telemedicine provider worked in the department, now almost 20 SLUCare psychiatrists use telehealth tools either part time or full time. SLUCare doctors also teach and conduct research within SLU’s medical school. 

In some ways, Bhattacharyya said telemedicine has enabled him to give more tailored feedback to students, who have been able to resume their clinicals by seeing patients using the video chat app Zoom.

“It’s given the ability for the attendee to be a fly on the wall and observe the resident talking to the patient, so we’ve been able to give people better feedback on how they’re interacting with people,” he said.

Kala Chinnaswamy is a SLU medical student who participated in an online clinical. She hopes to use telemedicine in her future practice to reach rural and disabled patients.

“We’re moving to the virtual age where patients have access to their medical records online, and they’re able to simply message their physician online,” Chinnaswamy said. “So, in the same way, I think those virtual conveniences should probably translate to virtual visits themselves.”

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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