In the context of the German contact restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic of March 2020, an online-based consultation system was established in our university orthopedic outpatient department to maintain patient care. As a basis for contact-minimizing communication, this was continued after the contact restrictions were lifted. The aim of this prospective pilot study was to assess the effectiveness, technical feasibility, and patient flow in this system under lockdown conditions and in the period afterwards.
The evaluation took place from the beginning of the first lockdown on March 13, 2020, until May 31, 2021. For each patient encounter, the quality of the sound and video connections was documented. The outcomes of the consultations were recorded. Four categories were distinguished: 1) no follow-up necessary, 2) follow-up via online consultation, 3) referral for surgical therapy, and 4) follow-up in the outpatient clinic for physical examination.
A comparison was made between an early cohort right after implementation of the online consultation and and a late cohort after establishment of the consultation.
There were 408 patient encounters via online consultation. A total of 360 (88%) consultations were uninterrupted. Initial presentations accounted for 124 (30%) consultations. In 75 (18%) patients, no further follow-up was necessary. Follow-up via online consultation was scheduled in 82 (20%) patients, direct referral for surgery was made in 86 (21%) patients, and a follow-up for physical examination was arranged in 165 (40%) patients. When comparing the early and late cohort, there was no difference in the duration of the conversation (p = 0.23). A significant difference was found in the type of further treatment. In the late cohort, conservative therapy was used more often (p < 0.01), resulting in a lower number of follow-up visits for clinical examination (p < 0.01).
While a definite decision for further procedure was possible solely by online consultation in a large percentage of cases, 40% of patients still needed an additional in-person consultation for physical examination. A learning curve could be observed regarding the selection of patients suited for online consultation. Overall, online consultation is a useful measure to manage patient volume and to visibly support direct doctor-patient contact.