Telehealth for Ulcerative Colitis During COVID-19

Virtual visits can be helpful during the pandemic and beyond

For people who live with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a close relationship with a healthcare team is important. IBD, which includes ulcerative colitis, is a lifelong condition which needs regular management.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been more difficult for some people with IBD to receive regular care. To meet this need, telehealth services have become available at through many institutions and doctor’s offices.

A woman has a video telehealth visit with her doctor using a tablet.
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Changes in Telemedicine During COVID-19

When we think of telemedicine today we think of video chats but telehealth is also communicating with healthcare providers via phone, email, or text. In the past, providers were not compensated for these touchpoints as they were for in-person office visits.

When the pandemic made physical distancing important, policies were changed by the Department of Health & Human Services in order to allow providers to charge for telehealth visits. This freed up providers to be able to work on making telehealth appointments available.

How Telehealth Might Be Used

For ulcerative colitis, telehealth services might be used for follow-up visits, going over colonoscopy results or lab work, and discussing all those “other” parts of living with IBD such as sleep, sexual health, and nutrition.

A gastroenterologist can also approve refills of medications or make medication changes, give referrals to see other specialists and help patients understand if symptoms warrant an in-person visit. It might even be possible to see a physician more frequently when virtual visits become a possibility.

There have been some studies that show that telehealth can be helpful for patients with ulcerative colitis and other forms of IBD. The pandemic thrust telehealth to the forefront faster than expected, but it was being actively studied prior to being needed as a safety measure for COVID-19.

One study showed that the patients that were given access to virtual visits used fewer in-person services over the course of a year.

Other positive aspects of telehealth, aside from the possibility of improved care, are financial benefits and improved quality of life. Televisits might have a lower cost than an in-person visit, and less travel and time away from work is also helpful for patients.

Finding a Telehealth Doctor

Many gastroenterologists are offering telehealth visits during the pandemic. For practices that aren’t able to offer virtual visits, it may be possible to come to an understanding with another practice, institution, or even an IBD Center.

After all, distance and scheduling problems are solvable with virtual visits, so it may make sense to see a specialist who is offering telehealth visits, especially if the ulcerative colitis is stable or in remission.

It may even be possible to see one doctor in person for physical exams and another doctor or an IBD nurse using telemedicine. An insurance provider or your state health department can help in finding a doctor that’s both in-network and offers telehealth services.

Explaining Your Symptoms

For many symptoms of ulcerative colitis, they can be explained verbally, and providers are experienced in asking the right questions. But for signs and symptoms such as eye problems, skin conditions, or abdominal swelling, it may help to show them over a video visit.

Work with the provider to find the best way to demonstrate symptoms. Using the best possible video camera available and having a bright light on hand can help. A still photo may also be useful if the provider can receive it via text or email before (or after) the visit. 

When Not to Use Telehealth

Telemedicine has a variety of uses and providers are becoming more creative in how to meet the needs of patients while COVID-19 is still spreading. However, there are some instances where seeing a doctor in-person is the best course of action.

It's a good idea to talk with providers and ask which signs or symptoms they would recommend scheduling an in-person visit.

Ulcerative colitis can lead to complications and while that's not common, it's important to be aware of that possibility. For people who live with ulcerative colitis, experiencing these symptoms would be a reason to see a physician face-to-face or go to the emergency room:

Tips for a Great Telehealth Visit

There are several steps that patients can take to ensure that a telehealth appointment will go well and be productive.

  • Fill out any forms that are needed ahead of time. Check with the office about signing any necessary forms and returning them. Unfortunately, all the paperwork can be onerous but it needs to be done in order to have a telehealth appointment.
  • Practice with the technology before the appointment. There are a variety of apps and services that are being used for telehealth appointments. It might be necessary to download an app or other software to have the visit. If there is a problem with logging in, it’s better to know about it in advance. Work with the doctor’s office or the tech support staff in order to get any problems solved.
  • Try to create a quiet space to take the appointment. With everyone at home from work and school, it can be challenging to find a room away from everyone else. Eliminating distractions for a few minutes can be helpful, and using headphones or earbuds may also go a long way towards making a visit more private.
  • Having a video visit is not the same as an in-person visit and it may take a time or two to get used to this way of communicating. Keeping a list of important things nearby, such as medications, questions, and test results, may help in making sure all the important topics are addressed during the visit.

A Word From Verywell

For the most part, patients are satisfied with using telehealth and like that they have more options available to them. Providers are also reporting that telehealth has been working for them, because they’re able to see more patients during the day while keeping everyone safe.

There are times, however, when telemedicine isn’t an option, such as when it’s time to get blood drawn or have a colonoscopy. For that reason, virtual visits aren’t going to be the only way to receive medical care.

While it’s necessary to take precautions to avoid COVID-19, however, telehealth is another tool that patients who live with ulcerative colitis can use to continue to receive care. 

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Telehealth: Delivering care safely during COVID-19. July 15, 2020.

  2. de Jong MJ, van der Meulen-de Jong AE, et al. Telemedicine for management of inflammatory bowel disease (myIBDcoach): a pragmatic, multicentre, randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2017;390:959-968. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(17)31327-2 

  3. George LA, Cross RK. Remote monitoring and telemedicine in IBD: Are we there yet? Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2020;22:12. doi:10.1007/s11894-020-0751-0