From self-installing car seats to night-vision video baby monitors to smartphone thermometers, advancements in technology have totally changed the parenting game. Today's parents can track night feedings through apps, keep an eye on their kids at day care through live video feeds, and even pump hands-free.
All those advancements extend to medicine, too. Though much of the innovation at hospitals and doctors' offices goes on behind the scenes, there's one big development that has the potential to make parents' lives much easier: virtual visits. We caught up with Dr. Jennifer Kaufman of Stanford Children's Health to find out what parents need to know about health care at the click of a mouse and how they can take advantage of the growing trend.
Though Dr. Kaufman has been a pediatrician for 19 years, she has only been conducting virtual visits in her practice for about a year and a half. "The technology is relatively new, and it's always getting better," she says.
When Dr. Kaufman first started offering virtual visits, a specialized video screen had to be wheeled into the doctor's office on a cart. Parents also had to use a laptop or desktop computer to connect to the visit. Now, it's much simpler: Stanford Children's Health doctors can use their regular computers, and patients' families can use smartphones and other mobile devices in addition to laptops.
Virtual visits work just like typical in-person appointments, Dr. Kaufman says — except they're conducted over video instead of in the exam room. After parents schedule a virtual visit, they'll receive an email through their Stanford Children's Health MyChart account with a secure link they can use to log on to the virtual visit when the time comes. The email will also guide them through a simple equipment check to make sure their device and internet connection are working well.
The best part of virtual visits — for both the patient and the doctor — is that they can be done from anywhere, from the parents' living room or office, to more remote locations. Dr. Kaufman even remembers one virtual visit with a family who had pulled over and called her from a parking lot. Virtual visits have proven so convenient that Dr. Kaufman even has patients who live outside the Bay Area, like Kanika Goyal and her daughter, Suchika. The Goyal family lives in the Central Valley — a two-plus hour drive away — and uses virtual visits to minimize the number of road trips they have to make to the Bay Area. Kanika says she feels as if they are sitting in the doctor's clinic and talking to her even when they're on the phone or video.
During a virtual visit, the doctor can access the patient's chart, talk to the child and their parents over video, and even do a visual inspection of conditions like rashes. Still, Dr. Kaufman says some appointments are better suited to virtual visits than others. "Many of these are visits where the physical exam isn't a superimportant component," she says. "Sometimes the kids will be on the lap, sometimes the kids are running around in the background, and every once in a while the child is not even physically in the room because we're talking about a more behavioral issue."
Each Stanford Children’s Health practice has a list of the visit reasons that work best for virtual visits, so the front desk can let patients know when they might be able to speak to the doctor at home instead of coming into the office. Behavioral issues, sleep training, starting baby food, school problems, allergies, and chronic conditions all fit nicely into virtual visits. "The instances we really want to avoid are ones when the child is acutely ill," Dr. Kaufman explains. "Fever, tummy pain, and things like that, where we really need to touch the child physically, [are best done in person]."
While the convenience factor might be the most obvious benefit of virtual visits, it's not the only one. Allowing parents to schedule their children's doctor's appointments for a time that's convenient for them — in a location that's convenient for them — frees up the time they might spend picking up their children from school or day care, driving to the doctor's office, and waiting for the exam to start. There's no need to take off time from work or pull your kids out of school early.
For the Goyal family, that's huge. Even though there are closer doctor's offices, Kanika feels more comfortable trusting Dr. Kaufman and Stanford Children's Health with her daughter's medical care. “When it comes to your kid, you don’t want to take any chances. Even if you have to drive two hours, you’re OK with it," she explains. "We have pediatricians where I live, but they don’t have any weekend facilities. Obviously when kids get sick or when they get hurt, they don’t see what time it is.”
There's also a comfort that comes with virtual visits, Dr. Kaufman says. Children can often get stressed or upset by an unfamiliar environment, like a doctor's office — which, in turn, stresses out their parents.
"One of my biggest challenges when I'm trying to really have a nice conversation with the parents is their attention is split," she explains. "They have to take care of their child, the exam room is boring and small, the parents bring toys, and we have a few toys around. It's not their usual environment — it can be really intimidating for a child." Giving patients the freedom to choose where they hold virtual visits ensures that both the parents and children feel more relaxed and comfortable, which makes for more productive appointments.
Kanika also said the ease of making virtual visits was a huge benefit for her family. “With Dr. Kaufman and her clinic at Stanford, we can call anytime and it's 24/7," she says. Instead of having to wait for a local doctor's office to open up on Monday morning, Kanika knows she can always get in touch with Dr. Kaufman — without having to drive two hours for an in-person appointment.
The Future of Virtual Visits
Though parents 20 or 30 years ago could never have imagined they'd be able to visit with their children's doctor at the click of a mouse, Dr. Kaufman says the vast majority of parents she works with have taken to virtual visits immediately. Today's parents already have everything they need at the tap of an app, after all!
She can only recall one or two virtual visits that had to be rescheduled as phone calls or in-person appointments — quite an impressive anecdotal success rate. Of course, if parents prefer to visit the office in person, Dr. Kaufman says the staff at Stanford Children's Health are always happy to help you secure the next available appointment.
Plus, Dr. Kaufman says that virtual visits will only become more technologically advanced over the next few years. "There are some new devices in development that will give doctors the ability to do a better physical exam virtually," she explains. Stanford Children's Health is already looking into new devices that would allow doctors to listen to children's heart and lung exams or look inside ears for ear infections virtually with a parent's help, for instance.
Ready to give it a try for yourself? Next time you make an appointment with your child's pediatrician for one of the reasons below, ask them if you can schedule a virtual visit instead.