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Yale Students’ Nonprofit Connects Seniors to Telehealth

Telehealth has become increasingly common as a way for doctors and other health care workers to see patients without risking exposure to the coronavirus. But there are still many people who don’t have a way to connect.

Shutterstock/SFIO CRACHO
(TNS) — That old iPhone 4 still has some life left in it.

Telehealth has become increasingly common as a way for doctors and other health care workers to see patients without risking exposure to the coronavirus. But there are still many people, especially among low-income and older populations, who don’t have a smartphone or tablet that enables them to connect virtually with their doctor, counselor or other caregiver.

Telehealth Access for Seniors, a nonprofit organization founded by Yale University students, has stepped in to close the digital divide when it comes to telehealth, collecting used devices and buying new ones to give to those patients who are most in need of regular medical check-ins.

Connecting with grandchildren is a nice benefit, too.

The organization now has 300 volunteers across the country, including students from Cornell University and some high schools, and has collected more than 1,200 devices and raised $50,000 so far.

“We started it because we realized there were a lot of seniors who didn’t have access to technology,” said Aakshi Agarwal of Hamden, a rising senior and co-founder, along with Hanna Verma, a rising Yale senior from Orlando, Fla., and her brother, Arjun Verma, who will be a junior in high school. “This was a really growing problem across the nation … especially for low-income patients.”

She added, “We all want to do something to help during the pandemic but there’s limited options because of social distancing.”

The volunteers “reach out through Facebook, Patch, NextDoor, newspapers, radio, any other way that they can get the word out in the community about their cause,” said Siddharth Jain of Shelton, who will be a first-year Yale student this year and is the organization’s treasurer.

“Once they get these devices, they sanitize them, reset them and they find a clinic in their community that’s in need of these devices for telehealth appointments,” he said. “A lot of the clinics that we partner with are vet centers, VAs, because we found that a lot of veterans are low-income and need devices for telehealth appointments.”

That includes the Veterans Affairs medical center in West Haven, among at least six clinics in Connecticut and more than 75 clinics across the country.

Not only do they receive a device, but the seniors and others also are given resource guides and free tech support. “Then they’re assisted all the way through to setting up their MyChart, their FaceTime, whatever telemedicine app that they use,” Jain said.

Most clinics will accept any device with a front-facing camera, Agarwal said. “But now, for example, we’re working with the Fair Haven community clinic and they have a little bit of a higher requirement because of the different types of telehealth softwares they use. … They use the MyChart software and the MyChart software only works on advanced IOSs where the VAs that we’ve worked with are typically able to adapt to whatever really the veteran is able to work with.”

People are happy to donate old phones, tablets and laptops, she said. “A lot of people want to get rid of that old iPhone 4 that’s worth about $10 now, but we definitely do accept Android tablets,” she said. They’ve bought mostly Android tablets with donations they’ve received because of their lower cost.

“As long as they turn on, we’re fine with a lot of them,” Jain said. “We’ve collected a lot of [iPhone] 4s, 4Ss, 5s.” They usually buy new devices with $50,000 they’ve raised because the price difference between a refurbished used device and a new one is “pretty marginal,” Agarwal said. “Also, it’s a long-term investment, I think. The seniors get to keep these devices, so we hope that they’ll be able to use them in five years.”

“It’s not terribly taxing,” said Alexandra McCraven of Cheshire, a rising Yale senior. “I know that for people that I’ve collected from, they really want to get rid of the 4s and the 4Ss and the older devices that don’t really upgrade anymore, so it’s a situation where they’re happy to help the cause but also we’re almost doing them a favor because they’re really not worth that much anymore.”

McCraven recently volunteered with the organization. “I’m from Cheshire so a lot of my work is posting on local community forums, posting on Facebook to friends of my parents and also just going through my community, knocking on doors, leaving fliers and such, and then people can choose whether they want to ship the device to my home or I can actually drive there,” she said.

The devices are given to clinics, whose staff determines which patients to give them to. Because of privacy laws, the students don’t know who receives them, unless the patient calls for tech support.

Students from Telehealth Access for Seniors, a nonprofit started by Yale University students, bring smartphones and tablets to the Hartford Vet Center.

“We’ve found really positive feedback from them that they’re able to use the devices and connect with their providers, and that the guides are really helping them set up the device,” Jain said. “We have had a few seniors call in to our tech-support number as well … and they’ve been able to successfully connect with their provider.”

Telehealth Access has resource guides in Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Arabic. They have also produced a wellness guide, along with Sovalis and EndingCOVID, two other nonprofits, with information about COVID-19, income tax filing, avoiding scams and more.

“Part of our mission is that we believe that digital connectivity is really important just for general wellness, especially during a pandemic when you can’t go outside,” so the tablets help keep seniors connected to family and friends, Agarwal said.

“We have an entire digital calling guide that says how to use Zoom, how to use Skype, FaceTime, Facebook, all these different things that you can use to connect with your friends and family, because the rate of social isolation among seniors is honestly really, really jarring for me to think about. I can’t imagine living entirely alone and not having a device to call my grandkids or my children,” she said.

Dr. Madhuri Sharma, who joined Fair Haven Community Health Care in May as director of telemedicine and physician, said the nonprofit is helping keep the clinic’s patients connected who would not want to come to the clinic in person because of COVID-19.

“In my experience, they will just wait to seek care … and it usually ends up in emergency care,” she said.

The Fair Haven clinic has received 15 or so devices from the group and will be receiving another 40 this month.

“We’ve actually started a remote patient-monitoring program,” which will send patients’ blood pressure, blood sugar and temperature readings to the clinic via a hub with Bluetooth and 4G or 5G connectivity.

“The smartphones they’re giving us will allow us to do telemedicine visits,” rather than rely on a phone call to check on the patient, said Sharma.

©2020 the New Haven Register, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.