Last week, the Oklahoman news Website NewsOK.com reported that Dr. Thomas Trow, a doctor living in “far Eastern” Oklahoma (read: towns few and far-between), had been disciplined for treating patients over Skype for mental health issues.
He was accused of prescribing them medications without ever having physically met with them; his response was that his nurse traveled to satellite clinics to meet the patients and present them via Skype. Also, NewsOK reported, “He stated that he did not think he had to see patients in person since they were psychiatric patients.”
According to the complaint against him, one patient overdosed three times in six months, NewsOK reports. “The patient known as R.C. died while under Trow’s care — as did two other patients during the same time — but investigators said Thursday that those deaths were not attributable to Trow.” The penalty: ”Trow was placed on probation for two years and ordered to complete a course on prescribing practices,” NewsOK says.
Telemedicine run amok? Or a reasonable rural strategy that went awry? We asked Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners HealthCare, to comment.
Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar
The medical board of the state of Oklahoma recently sanctioned a physician for using Skype to conduct patient visits. A number of other factors add color to the board’s action, including that the physician was prescribing controlled substances as a result of these visits and that one of his patients died. This situation brings up several challenges of telehealth — that is, using technology to care for patients when doctor and patient are not face-to-face.
• Legal/regulatory: On the legal side, physicians are bound by medical regulations set by each state. It appears that the use of Skype is not permitted for patient care in Oklahoma.
• Privacy/security: Skype says its technology is encrypted, which means that you should not be able to eavesdrop on a Skype call. That would seem to protect patient privacy. At Partners HealthCare, we ask patients to sign consent before participating in a ‘virtual video’ visit. Because this is a new way of providing care, we feel it’s best to inform our patients of the very small risk that their video-based call could be intercepted. I don’t know if the Oklahoma physician was using informed consent or not.
But the most interesting aspects of this case involve the question of quality of care. Can a Skype call substitute for an in-person visit? Under what circumstances?
Video virtual visits are a new mode of care delivery. Whenever anything new comes up in medicine, it is subject to rigorous analysis before entering mainstream care. That same rigor applies to video virtual visits. Although some studies suggest virtual visits can be useful, the evidence is not yet overwhelming. I can’t say with 100% certainty how virtual visits will best be used, but based on several pilot programs under way at Partners, I have a hunch or two.
We have believed for some time that this technology should be limited to follow up visits, where the patient and physician already have a well-established relationship. Continue reading