Are Virtual Consults the Future of Cosmetic Medicine?

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The healthcare industry has undergone some swift changes over the last few months. In an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, alleviate the burden of underprepared hospitals, and protect communities, physicians have adapted their protocols with patient safety in mind—and the availability, accessibility, and popularity of telehealth have increased greatly

While meeting virtually with a doctor to discuss a common cold or bad case of poison ivy is fairly normal for many, the idea of discussing an upcoming cosmetic procedure over video chat may still feel novel. Cosmetic surgeons all over the country have opted to provide virtual consultations and follow-up appointments even during office closures, offering patients access to expert insight, the opportunity to plan ahead, and a convenient, streamlined option for preparing for a cosmetic procedure.

But what happens in the future? COVID-19 has undoubtedly had an impact on our current day-to-day lives—and many changes are sure to stick around even in a post-COVID world. We expect to see more and more cosmetic surgeons making telehealth part of their practice long-term. We think you’ll gain some valuable insights from the following Q&A with American Board of Cosmetic Surgery President Dr. Wilbur Hah.

How long has telemedicine been available?

Telemedicine started long before the pandemic; it even predates the internet. As early as the 1950s, physicians and healthcare providers were using landline phones to offer remote services for non-emergency situations—but the last decade has seen an increase in patients counting on virtual services for their convenience and ease of use.

Currently, many of the biggest names in health insurance offer app-based integration with telemedicine services like AmWell, MDLIVE, and LiveHealth online. General practitioners, specialists, and mental health professionals have made themselves available via video chat or phone call to discuss symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments, as well as provide prescription medications.

However, some areas of medicine, including cosmetic practices, have been slower to adopt the virtual office visit for various reasons. The primary one cited by our board certified cosmetic surgeons is patient comfort, given that turning to a smartphone for a virtual appointment can sound potentially impersonal or even insecure.

All of this seemed to change when faced with a global pandemic. COVID-19 made virtual healthcare a necessity for those with minor illness or injury who didn’t want to risk exposure in brick-and-mortar healthcare locations. Many physicians who previously didn’t offer virtual appointments opted to pick up the phone for patients to follow stay-at-home orders, while specialists and those offering elective health services began offering video consultations.

Is telemedicine safe and secure?

To varying degrees, we take comfort in the promise of patient confidentiality between ourselves and our care providers. Talking about your private concerns or doing a virtual exam may raise new concerns—especially if you need to share deeply personal information. Many patients worry about the safety and privacy of online consultations, but most physicians take special precautions and use only proven-safe products. (There are a growing number of HIPAA-compliant virtual meeting applications, including Doxy.me, Zoom for Healthcare, and GoToMeeting.)

While privacy concerns are healthy and normal, remember that the healthcare system has been relying on digital systems for over two decades, making your medical records available to specialists, submitting data to insurance, and providing reports to you via dashboards. In other words, doctors already have systems in place to help keep your personal data secure.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) was designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the healthcare system while retaining patient protections. This Act required the adoption of national standards for electronic healthcare to ensure security and privacy for patients. Over the years, telemedicine systems have become increasingly private, secure, and reliable, thanks to specialty applications designed to be HIPAA-compliant.

So, what makes HIPAA-compliant meeting software different from other video conferencing options? To comply with HIPAA regulations, there are a few specific things video conferencing applications employ, including:

  • Secure handling of Electronic Protected Health Information (e-PHI). e-PHI covers any protected health information that is created, stored, transmitted, or received electronically, including your name, address, contact information, social security number, medical records, insurance information, etc. For meeting software, most providers only allow local file storage that is not accessible through the cloud or software servers. This means data that is transmitted goes between only you and your doctor.
  • Encryption. It’s a word we’ve all seen but few of us understand. Essentially, data encryption is a process that converts information into a secret code that conceals the information. Encrypted video conference software keeps your meeting totally confidential as no servers (including meeting software) have access to decryption keys that can “decode” the secret message. While encryption is not mandatory in the Security Rule, it is an added protection utilized by most HIPAA-compliant meeting software.
  • Peer-to-peer sessions. This means that all video, audio, and other media are streamed directly between you and your doctor, never stored or intercepted by meeting software servers.
  • HIPAA Business Associate Agreements. Because only health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, and healthcare providers are subject to the HIPAA Privacy Rule, organizations that want to provide services on behalf of those entities (such as a meeting software being used for telehealth) will enter into a contract designed to extend HIPAA protections to the non-healthcare provider. These are called Business Associate Agreements, and they are essentially an agreement between the healthcare entity and the secondary service provider (“associate”) that the associate will properly safeguard protected health information.

You can see the combined HIPAA regulatory standards here »opens PDF file

What are the benefits of a virtual cosmetic surgery consultation?

Regardless of the type of medical service—general care, mental health, or cosmetic medicine—there are a few obvious benefits to telehealth: accessibility, convenience, cost, and no risk of exposure to illness.

Virtual cosmetic surgery consults and appointments have a few additional benefits specific to patients considering an elective aesthetic procedure.

  • A more comfortable consult. Discussing the nuances of your appearance can make anyone feel vulnerable, even when meeting with a caring, experienced cosmetic surgeon and nurse. While a sensitive doctor will do all they can to make patients 100% comfortable in their office, being in a clinical space still makes it harder for some to open up about desired changes—especially during that first meeting. You may feel less anxious or exposed having your consultation from the comfort of home.
  • Convenient & timely. Depending on how far away your chosen surgeon is, taking time to drive to and from appointments can be tedious. Meeting online means your overall time commitment is shorter—and you’ll have more time to spend on important items like getting to know your surgeon, going over your goals, and learning about treatment specifics.
  • More options to choose from. Many board certified cosmetic surgeons have experience working with patients coming from afar seeking advanced expertise. Virtual consultations can allow you to connect with surgeons who are experienced in more specialized procedures without driving for hours or flying to a different city before knowing if the physician is the right one to perform your procedure. In fact, if you haven’t found the right cosmetic surgeon in your locality, I encourage you to consider expanding your options to board certified cosmetic surgeons in surrounding areas.
  • Increased privacy. Cosmetic surgery is most often a deeply personal decision, and many patients don’t want to openly advertise what is a private medical choice. By having virtual and non-emergency follow-up appointments via a video conference, patients needn’t worry about being seen when arriving or departing a physical office.

Will cosmetic surgeons continue offering virtual consultations after the pandemic?

Going forward, we anticipate many cosmetic surgeons will continue to offer virtual cosmetic surgery visits for both initial conversations and follow-up appointments. Patients and cosmetic surgeons alike have seen first-hand how powerful and convenient a tool telehealth can be and are enjoying the many benefits detailed above. In fact, I expect virtual visits to be equally (if not more) popular with patients.

However, a virtual visit won’t work in all situations. You may have a complex issue that is difficult for a doctor to assess without an in-person physical examination. (Your cosmetic surgeon will provide guidance.) Or you may simply prefer to get a feel for your cosmetic surgeon and their support staff in person before making any commitments; don’t hesitate to request a follow-up visit for that reason alone.

What are virtual cosmetic surgery consults like?

Aside from being at home and speaking through your phone, your virtual consult will be much like an in-person consult. You’ll meet with your surgeon and nurse, go over any pertinent medical history, discuss your concerns and goals, and visually review your areas of concern either live or through photographs.

Here are a few tips and things to keep in mind as you prepare for your virtual consultation:

  • Set the scene. You’ll want to find a quiet, private, and well-lit room for your appointment. Ask your significant other and kids to spend time outside or in another space, close windows to minimize background noise and distractions, and make sure you feel calm and comfortable.
  • Temper anxiety. Remember, your cosmetic surgeon is there in service of you. You will be able to take the lead of what you want to share, and you won’t be expected to do anything that makes you personally uncomfortable. You’ll be meeting with your cosmetic surgeon and either a nurse, patient coordinator, or another staff member. If you simply do not want to conduct a visual exam virtually, that is okay; your surgeon will be happy to schedule an in-person follow-up to discuss or evaluate sensitive areas. Likewise, if video chat is uncomfortable, your surgeon will happily schedule a regular phone call with you to go over basic information, tell you about themselves and their team, and answer any questions you may have.
  • Remember, they’ve done it before. While virtual appointments may be new to you, your cosmetic surgeon has conducted many; they will be comfortable with the software and happy to guide you through the process.
  • You’ll cover a lot of ground. Your cosmetic surgery consultation should be highly informative and personalized. Consider having a notebook handy with questions you want to ask and space to make notes. In addition to guidance related to your individual circumstances, you’ll go over procedure basics, recovery, scheduling, and payment options including financing.

Whether you choose a virtual consult or decide that consulting in person is best for you, it’s normal to feel a little anxious when first meeting with a cosmetic surgeon. Don’t worry! You can expect a follow-up from your doctor or a staff member, and you can always reach out to the practice for additional information.

We hope this information about virtual cosmetic surgery consultations has been helpful! To find a board certified cosmetic surgeon near you offering either virtual or in-person consultations, please use our Find a Surgeon tool.

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