By Nicole Wells
I was 15 when I was diagnosed with two rare liver diseases. Growing up in rural Kentucky, that meant countless out of state trips to see specialists. Those trips were a family commitment. My dad had to take off work for the day to drive me hours to see my hepatologist, but there was no alternative.
Today, as I see the use of telehealth exploding, I can’t help but think how my life may have been different if I’d had the option of virtual visits. At the time, though, I didn’t. After college, I became a teacher in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I eventually had to resign because the medical support that I needed wasn’t available there.
A few years later, after I received a liver transplant from my sister, I had to regularly make the eight-hour trek each way from Kentucky to Baltimore for follow-up appointments.
One night, as my husband and I were traveling home, unable to afford a hotel, I thought to myself, “Why can’t we have these appointments remotely?”
It wasn’t until almost two years later, when a global pandemic sent the world into lockdown, that I was first offered a telehealth visit. Now, I’ve had more than a dozen. And, while the interaction is sometimes a little less personal, I get the same quality of care as if I was sitting in a doctor’s office.
I also feel more empowered. Nearly half my lifetime ago, doctors taught me how to check my eyes for jaundice and my hands for fluid retention. Now, instead of doing it themselves, they ask me for my self-assessment and I show them on the screen. It’s helped me stay on top of my disease and recognize signs of progression that warrant an in-person visit.
Not every appointment can be done remotely, but many can. And, by offering that option to patients, what doctors are saying is, “We understand that your time is valuable, too.”
It took a global pandemic to propel telehealth into the forefront, but it’s important not to let the invaluable and for me, life-enhancing, tool get shelved once the world returns to pre-COVID-19 operations. Telehealth can save patients like me, and our families, hours of drive time and all the expenses that come with making a trip. It can also give us more flexibility to live our healthiest lives with fewer detours to medical centers.
Nicole Wells is a liver disease patient who lives in rural Kentucky and a program manager at the Global Liver Institute, a member organization of Patient & Provider Advocates for Telehealth.