Despite distance and occasional technical glitches, a new study finds that most patients like seeing a surgeon for the first time via video.

The study was published Jan. 19 in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

“We see patients that live hours away. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it threw fuel on the fire of our telehealth program,” said study co-author Dr. Alexander Hawkins, associate professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

“Across the entire health care system, we now do about 20,000 telehealth visits a month,” he said in a college news release. “Previously, there had been concerns about whether we could effectively communicate with patients remotely, but we found that patients are just as satisfied with telehealth visits as in-person appointments.”

The study included 387 patients who participated in first-time visits between May 2021 and June 2022 at general surgery clinics across the Vanderbilt system. Researchers used a standard questionnaire to look at the quality of shared decision-making and asked patients and surgeons open-ended questions about their consultations.

In all, 77.8% of patients had an in-person visit, while 22.2% saw their doctor remotely.

Both groups reported high levels of quality communication during these appointments.

Levels of shared decision-making and quality of communication were similar between remote visits and in-person care, the study found.

In responding to the open-ended questions, patients praised the convenience and usefulness of telehealth appointments. Researchers received some negative comments about technical difficulties and not being physically present.

Study co-author Thomas Ueland, a third-year medical student at Vanderbilt, was surprised by the findings.

“I expected that telemedicine visits would result in an inferior quality of communication,” Ueland said in the release. “While we did see that in some responses, we also saw some very positive perspectives on telemedicine visits both in terms of how the actual interaction went and the overall convenience of the process. Many patients really enjoyed having this as an option.”

In some situations, telehealth would not be appropriate because it doesn’t allow for physical exams. Some surgeons said it is better suited for follow-up care, after a relationship is established.

“We believe these results suggest that either method, in-person or telehealth, is appropriate,” Hawkins said. “Ultimately, it very much depends upon what the surgeon and the patient think is the best way to communicate. Going forward, we need to determine what is most appropriate for telehealth, and what is most appropriate for in-person visits.”

Researchers plan further study to develop a condition-by-condition guide for when telehealth should be used.

They also noted that patients mostly came from one geographic region, so the results may not apply to other areas.

The findings were also presented at a meeting of the Southern Surgical Association last month in Palm Beach, Fla.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on telehealth.

SOURCE: American College of Surgeons, news release, Jan. 19, 2023