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Longitudinal Use of Telehealth During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Utility of Asynchronous Testing for Subspecialty-Level Ophthalmic Care 

2023-09-20 20:07:47

Publication by WAEH Member UCSF – Department of Ophthalmology

Importance: Telehealth in ophthalmology has traditionally focused on preventive disease screening with limited use in outpatient evaluation. The unique conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic afforded the opportunity to evaluate different implementations of teleophthalmology at scale, providing insight into expanding teleophthalmology care. 

Objective: To compare telehealth use in ophthalmology with other specialties and assess the feasibility of augmenting ophthalmic telehealth encounters with asynchronous testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Design, setting, and participants: This quality improvement study evaluated retrospective, longitudinal, observational data from the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic (January 1, 2020, through July 31, 2021) for 881 080 patients receiving care from outpatient primary care, cardiology, neurology, gastroenterology, surgery, neurosurgery, urology, orthopedic surgery, otolaryngology, obstetrics/gynecology, and ophthalmology clinics of the University of California, San Francisco. Asynchronous testing was evaluated for teleophthalmology encounters. 

Interventions: A hybrid care model wherein ophthalmic testing data were acquired asynchronously and used to augment telehealth encounters. 

Main outcomes and measures: Telehealth as a percentage of total volume of ambulatory care and use of asynchronous testing for ophthalmic conditions. 

Results: The volume of in-person outpatient visits dropped by 83.3% (39 488 of 47 390) across the evaluated specialties at the onset of shelter-in-place orders for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the initial use of telehealth increased for these specialties before stabilizing over the 18-month study period. In ophthalmology, telehealth use peaked at 488 of 1575 encounters (31.0%) early in the pandemic and returned to mostly in-person visits as COVID-19 restrictions lifted. Elective use of telehealth was highest in gastroenterology, urology, neurology, and neurosurgery and lowest in ophthalmology. Asynchronous testing was combined with 126 teleophthalmology encounters, resulting in change of clinical management for 32 patients (25.4%) and no change for 91 (72.2%). 

Conclusions and relevance: Telehealth increased across various specialties during the COVID-19 pandemic. Combining teleophthalmic visits with asynchronous testing suggested that this approach is feasible for subspecialty-level evaluation. Additional study is needed to evaluate whether asynchronous testing outside the same institution could provide an effective and lasting approach for expanding the reach of ophthalmic telehealth. 

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