Telemedicine can help people in rural areas as well as people with mobility limitations.
- By 2030, close to 80 percent of adults in the United States are projected to be managing weight-related health concerns, according to new research.
- Telemedicine has the potential to improve obesity treatment effectiveness and expand access.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an expansion of the telemedicine landscape.
Obesity affects more than 40 percent of adults in the United States. The condition is considered an epidemic, and it’s been getting more serious for decades.
A research review published in the scientific journal Obesity suggests that telemedicine can play a critical role in treating this public health crisis.
Telemedicine is simply the use of information and communication technologies to aid in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease or injuries.
It includes everything from virtual coaching sessions to post-operative follow-ups over Zoom, app-based nutrition planning, and the use of connected devices such as fitness trackers and smart scales.
While telemedicine has been around for decades, experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its adoption among both patients and healthcare professionals.
Dr. Varun Jain, a bariatric surgery fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, talked with Healthline about the increased use of telemedicine since the onset of the pandemic.
“Initially it was a healthcare-provider-driven practice, but now we see our patients inquiring about and requesting it. Most patients, in fact, now expect it to be a service that should be available to them,” said Jain.
Breaking down barriers to care
Experts say people with overweight or obesity are sometimes made to feel stigmatized or shamed. Even doctors can be guilty of this.
So, it’s no wonder that some people are apprehensive about seeking out the medical care they need.
Dr. Mir Ali, director of bariatric surgery at MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center in Fountain Valley, California, told Healthline that telemedicine can give people more control over their appointments.
His practice offers classes over Zoom, and the participants can choose to be off camera or to send questions privately to only the doctor.
“I think that sense of anonymity has really opened it up to people,” said Ali.
In addition to making people feel more comfortable, telemedicine also has the advantage of being able to reach more people with the same number of doctors.
“Sometimes we have 100 patients in our nutrition class, which would have been not possible in person. So, it’s really expanded access to care,” Ali said.
Telemedicine can be especially useful to people without easy access to transportation or who might not have time to travel to see a specialist.
People with severe obesity may also have mobility limitations that can make the prospect of office visits feel daunting.
The published review specifically highlights the success of telemedicine for weight management programs in rural areas, citing that 95 percent of participants stated they couldn’t have completed the program if it were in person.
Telemedicine can also be used to create obesity treatment programs tailored to underserved communities, including women, historically marginalized racial groups, and people who identify as LGBTQ+.
Telemedicine is only part of the solution
While telemedicine is an effective and important means for the treatment of overweight and obesity, it isn’t a silver bullet.
One obstacle is that many of the same people without access to transportation also lack access to technology and high speed internet. Cost and geographic location can both be contributing factors.
Dr. Brian Quebbemann, the founder of the N.E.W. program and author of “Dietary Rebuild,” told Healthline that telemedicine might not be equipped to handle some aspects of weight management.
“One potential drawback is that social and environmental factors that contribute to weight gain will not be identified during online telemedicine evaluations,” said Quebbemann.
While Ali was optimistic about the future of telemedicine, remarking on the possible uses of remote surgery for some specific circumstances, he also seemed to agree with Quebbemann that it’s only one tool of many.
“We can’t replace in person contact completely. There is definitely something to be said for that in person interaction that you lose a little bit by telemedicine,” said Ali.
Health insurance can be another obstacle between people with obesity and proper treatment, even with the use of telemedicine.
“Telemedicine has made access to care better, but it hasn’t really improved the access to insurance,” Ali said.
Quebbemann generally agreed with the paper’s findings, although he points out that it doesn’t address “obesity prevention which, in my opinion, is the only way the obesity epidemic will be effectively controlled.”