FORT WALTON BEACH — When Dr. Ivorique Turner opened her new medical clinic in Fort Walton Beach in mid-January, COVID-19 wasn’t even a tiny blip on the public’s radar.
A matter of weeks later, however, the serious respiratory illness still spreading across the globe was having a dramatic impact on Turner’s dreams for Veterans Healthcare. She saw the clinic as a place for veterans — and others, including the medically underserved — to get high-quality and convenient medical care.
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But as the spread of the new coronavirus moved into the area, Turner, as a responsible medical professional, first curtailed the clinic’s hours of operation before ultimately closing it.
However much the fallout of COVID-19 has taken from her, it also has given Turner hope for the growth of "telemedicine," a service she had hoped to offer, explore and expand at Veterans Healthcare. Broadly, telemedicine is providing patient care via a digital platform — a computer, tablet or smartphone — instead of a face-to-face visit in the doctor’s office.
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As COVID-19 has forced many doctors and their patients to interact with each other at more than arm’s length, telemedicine has, by default, become a significant component of medical care.
The ease of digitally connecting with medical care, Turner said, "keeps our patients out of the emergency rooms and the hospitals," both leaving those facilities with more room for COVID-19 care and keeping down the chances for the spread of the disease.
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And, Turner said, COVID-19 is, in a sense, forcing patients to become more comfortable with telemedicine, as their mobility is artificially limited.
Telemedicine utilization has been on the radar of Florida health officials for some time, as evidenced by a 2016 study mandated by the state legislature that reflects Turner’s current-day views on the technology, with an assist from COVID-19 restrictions..
"Major factors driving the adoption of telehealth include advancing technologies, an aging population, health practitioner shortage, and greater acceptance of innovative treatment by patients," the study noted. "Although telehealth capabilities have been available for many years, recent advancements in technology and greater accessibility to those technologies are catalysts for growth."
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The move toward broader acceptance of telemedicine in the time of COVID-19 has been particularly evident at one local institution, the Air Force Enlisted Village in Shalimar. The community, home to dozens of older spouses of Air Force enlisted personnel, couples, and residents from other branches of the military, has thus far come through the coronavirus pandemic unscathed.
Brooke McLean, president and CEO of the Air Force Enlisted Village, said part of the success in dealing with COVID-19, and a change that’s likely to continue, is residents’ new reliance on telemedicine as an alternative to actual doctor visits.
The popularity of that option, he said, has extend to residents who, in his view, "never would have imagined going online.’
Medically, there also are changes on the other side of the equation, as doctors are being forced to become more familiar with telemedicine, according to Turner. Nonetheless, she said, those colleagues are diligently exploring the hardware and software they’ll need, even beyond COVID-19, to offer telemedicine services to their patients.
"I think a lot of my colleagues were quite surprised at their lack of knowledge," Turner said.