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A variety of factors combine to make it “very difficult for surgeons to make long-term plans for implementing telemedicine in their practices,” said Mario Maruthur, MD, who presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American College of Mohs Surgery. “Telemedicine likely has a role in Mohs practices, particularly with postop follow-up visits. However, postpandemic reimbursement and regulatory issues need to be formally laid out before Mohs surgeons are able to incorporate it into their permanent work flow.”
Dr. Maruthur, a Mohs surgery and dermatologic oncology fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and colleagues sent a survey to ACMS members in September and October 2020. “We saw first-hand in our surgical practice that telemedicine quickly became an important tool when the pandemic surged in the spring of 2020,” he said. Considering that surgical practices are highly dependent on in-person visits, the impetus for this study was to assess to what degree Mohs practices from across the spectrum, including academic and private practices, embraced telemedicine during the pandemic, and “what these surgical practices used telemedicine for, how it was received by their patients, which telemedicine platforms were most often utilized, and lastly, what are their plans if any for incorporating telemedicine into their surgical practices after the pandemic subsides.”
The researchers received responses from 115 surgeons representing all regions of the country (40% Northeast, 21% South, 21% Midwest, and 18% West). Half practiced in urban areas (37%) and large cities (13%), and 40% were in an academic setting versus 36% in a single-specialty private practice.
More than 70% of the respondents said their case load fell by at least 75% during the initial surge of the pandemic; 80% turned to telemedicine, compared with just 23% who relied on the technology prior to the pandemic. The most commonly used telemedicine technologies were FaceTime, Zoom, Doximity, and Epic.
Mohs surgeons reported most commonly using telemedicine for postsurgery management (77% of the total 115 responses). “Telemedicine is a great fit for this category of visits as they allow the surgeon to view the surgical site and answer any questions they patient may have,” Dr. Maruthur said. “If the surgeon does suspect a postop infection or other concern based on a patient’s signs or symptoms, they can easily schedule the patient for an in-person assessment. We suspect that postop follow-up visits may be the best candidate for long-term use of telemedicine in Mohs surgery practices.”
Surgeons also reported using telemedicine for “spot checks” (61%) and surgical consultations (59%).
However, Dr. Maruther noted that preoperative assessments and spot checks can be difficult to perform using telemedicine. “The quality of the video image is not always great, patients can have a difficult time pointing the camera at the right spot and at the right distance. Even appreciating the actual size of the lesion are all difficult over a video encounter. And there is a lot of information gleaned from in-person physical examination, such as whether the lesion is fixed to a deeper structure and whether there are any nearby scars or other suspicious lesions.”
Nearly three-quarters of the surgeons using the technology said most or all patients were receptive to telemedicine.
However, the surgeons reported multiple barriers to the use of telemedicine: Limitations when compared with physical exams (88%), fitting it into the work flow (58%), patient response and training (57%), reimbursement concerns (50%), implementation of the technology (37%), regulations such as HIPAA (24%), training of staff (17%), and licensing (8%).
In an interview, Sumaira Z. Aasi, MD, director of Mohs and dermatologic surgery, Stanford University, agreed that there are many obstacles to routine use of telemedicine by Mohs surgeons. “As surgeons, we rely on the physical and tactile exam to get a sense of the size and extent of the cancer and characteristics such as the laxity of the surrounding tissue whether the tumor is fixed,” she said. “It is very difficult to access this on a telemedicine visit.”
In addition, she said, “many of our patients are in the elderly population, and some may not be comfortable using this technology. Also, it’s not a work flow that we are comfortable or familiar with. And I think that the technology has to improve to allow for better resolution of images as we ‘examine’ patients through a telemedicine visit.”
She added that “another con is there is a reliance on having the patient point out lesions of concern. Many cancers are picked by a careful in-person examination by a qualified physician/dermatologist/Mohs surgeon when the lesion is quite small or subtle and not even noticed by the patient themselves. This approach invariably leads to earlier biopsies and earlier treatments that can prevent morbidity and save health care money.”
On the other hand, she said, telemedicine “may save patients some time and money in terms of the effort and cost of transportation to come in for simpler postoperative medical visits that are often short in their very nature, such as postop check-ups.”
Most of the surgeons surveyed (69%) said telemedicine probably or definitely deserves a place in the practice Mohs surgery, but only 50% said they’d like to or would definitely pursue giving telemedicine a role in their practices once the pandemic is over.
“At the start of the pandemic, many regulations in areas such as HIPAA were eased, and reimbursements were increased, which allowed telemedicine to be quickly adopted,” Dr. Maruther said. “The government and payers have yet to decide which regulations and reimbursements will be in place after the pandemic. That makes it very difficult for surgeons to make long-term plans for implementing telemedicine in their practices.”
Dr. Aasi predicted that telemedicine will become more appealing to patients and physicians as it its technology and usability improves. More familiarity with its use will also be helpful, she said, and surgeons will be more receptive as it’s incorporated into efficient daily work flow.
The study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.