There may be a silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud. The pandemic might actually improve diagnostic rates and follow-up care for people with celiac disease. Celiac disease clinics have begun to provide medical and dietary consultations via telehealth to protect patients and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patients who previously have not had access to doctors and dietitians who specialize in celiac disease, now can book an appointment with an expert via video conference or telephone from the comfort of their own home.

Dietitian appointments may be particularly needed now. Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University dietitian Anne Lee, RDN, notes that panic buying has caused a run on gluten-free products. With no gluten-free food products left for the people who need them, patients may require advice about alternative foods to meet their nutritional needs.

“If someone has celiac disease, they should be seeking consultation with a dietitian no matter what the times are, because the diet is their treatment. That doesn’t change no matter what the environment is bringing us,” says Anne Lee, RDN, assistant professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University, New York. “In these times, it may be even more important because they may need more guidance, more assurance that it’s going to be okay, that they can navigate this.”

Now working from home, Angie Almond, RD, coordinator of the celiac disease program at Brenner Children’s Hospital, Wake Forest Baptist Health, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina says a dietitian’s telehealth consultation lasts the usual hour. Almond’s program is booking both new referrals and follow-up visits for doctors and dietitians. The program recommends nutritional follow-up at diagnosis, after three months, six months, and at one year to ensure celiac patients know how to follow a strict gluten-free diet.

Because of COVID-19, most physician telehealth video conferences are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurers, but this is not the case for dietitian visits. Almond recommends, “If a patient has private insurance, then they should check their individual policy to verify coverage for medical nutrition therapy (MNT).” Medicare and Medicaid recipients should also verify their benefits before making an appointment.

“At the Celiac Center [Columbia University], it was decided that the patients referred to the dietitian by the practice doctors would be seen without additional charge. We consider the dietitian visit as part of the overall medical care. Patients referred to us from outside practices are charged a fee,” Lee explains.

One of the factors driving the low diagnosis rate has been the lack of patient access to doctors knowledgeable about celiac disease. Similarly, those diagnosed have struggled to find a dietitian expert in the gluten-free diet. Because of telehealth, we may see significant improvement in the management of celiac disease in the post-COVID-19 future.

Would you like to make a telehealth appointment with a celiac disease expert? View the Directory.