Telehealth has been around for years, but the coronavirus pandemic has given a jolt to utilization rates by tri-county health care providers.
Large hospitals, physician networks like Sansum Clinic and managed care providers are all turning to it as an alternative to face-to-face meetings. It’s a low-cost way to screen patients, reduce personal protection equipment usage and help their communities without putting professionals and patients at risk.
Cottage Health was moving toward using telehealth more in their services well before the current health crisis hit. The hospital group used telehealth services for years and wanted to integrate them more into patient care. In a timely development, Cottage rolled out CareNow in December.
CareNow is a platform that lets medical providers consult and treat 70 or so minor health issues. Through the platform, patients can either speak with a registered nurse or answer a series of questions asking them about their symptoms. The information helps providers have a better idea about what the patient is experiencing and gives them somewhere to start for treatment possibilities.
The service has been especially useful with the current health crisis. Dr. C. Alan Brown, the chief medical information officer at Cottage Health, said anyone with respiratory illness can access a specific set of questions related to their symptoms. Medical providers can then order testing.
By seeking a consultation through CareNow, Brown said patients can get their questions answered and reduce the spread of COVID-19. The care service is usually $29 for an online interview, and $39 for a video face-to-face visit, but for people seeking guidance about possibly having COVID-19, the CareNow visit is free.
“We want to lessen everyone’s exposure,” Brown said. “Anything we can do to help maintain appropriate distancing is worthwhile for the community.”
It’s an increasingly popular service. In January, CareNow averaged five visits a day, but in March, there were 25 visits per day, and the number keeps rising.
“It’s certainly been a very valuable tool during this pandemic,” Brown said.
Cottage is also shifting to telehealth solutions inside the hospital and in clinics. By using tablets in patient rooms, doctors and nurses can have virtual visits with patients to check in with them and see how they’re doing.
This helps reduce exposure for the medical professionals, but it also helps further reduce the amount of PPE the hospital is using. That helps the hospital maintain its stock for a longer period, which means it can treat current and future patients more safely.
Telehealth is also helping Cottage physicians social distance in other ways. The hospital group has a pediatric clinic in Pismo Beach, where it does consultations. It set up a virtual station at the clinic, so doctors can do physical exams there through telehealth.
This reduces the amount of travel for both doctors and patients.
“As a cardiologist, my stethoscope is about a foot and half long,” Brown said. “The thought of being able to extend my stethoscope to Pismo Beach is fascinating.”
Other hospital groups in the Central Coast also upped their reliance on telehealth programs as a response to COVID-19.
Dignity Health already uses telehealth capabilities in certain areas; TeleStroke is a program that lets physicians talk to stroke neurologists in real time, which lets them start appropriate treatment even if the patient isn’t at a major stroke center.
Community Memorial Health System is also taking their telehealth capabilities in a specialized direction. The hospital system started utilizing the technology in April, when its Centers for Family Health started allowing people to see their primary care providers from home. Midtown Medical Group followed shortly after, and on April 17, Community announced it is now offering palliative care appointments through telehealth.
Palliative care is for people who have serious or chronic medical issues that doctors are focused on alleviating, not curing. People with these issues are especially high-risk for COVID-19, so by being able to see them through telehealth, Community is directly reducing the risk to the patients.
Kaiser Permanente, a major health care provider in Ventura County, has also used the opportunity to expand its telehealth operations. At the start of April, the company announced its members now have access to myStrength, a mental health management app designed to help people monitor and support themselves through the crisis.
“Our expanded digital self-care portfolio puts evidence-based practices at members’ fingertips, helping them navigate life’s changes and challenges in the moment,” said Dr. Don Mordecai, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in a news release. “Everyone can benefit from caring for their emotional well-being, particularly in times of increased stress.”
The app was made by Livongo, a platform that uses technology to help people with issues like diabetes, hypertension and behavioral health, and Kaiser Permanente announced it is going to continue to look for other ways to help people take care of themselves when they might not be able to see a doctor in person.
Other providers used the current health crisis as an opportunity to start using telehealth in a major way. Sansum Clinic began using the services at the end of March, and by April 15, 207 Sansum health providers had more than 12,000 telehealth visits.
These visits included some non-essential medical visits that would have otherwise been cancelled or postponed because of the health crisis. Sansum Clinic staff members help people through the process before their telehealth appointments begin, which helps the visit go more smoothly.
“We want to stay connected to our patients in this uncertain time,” said Sean Johnson, Sansum Clinic’s vice president of applications and analytics, in a news release. “These telehealth visits are the best of both worlds for our current situation. Patients can still receive care from their providers but in a safer, and more protected manner for everyone.”
• Contact Amber Hair at [email protected]