Clickability tracking pixel

COVID-19 Social Distancing Is Normalizing Telehealth

Since COVID-19 forced people to stay home to mitigate spread of the virus, telehealth practices have rapidly expanded. Health care professionals believe that telehealth will stay even after the end of the pandemic.

by Mike Grant, Washington Times-Herald / June 2, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — What was once considered as an experimental way to deliver health care, telehealth, has now become a mainstream delivery system.

While many people are just now getting a taste of telehealth because of the coronavirus pandemic, the idea behind it and the act to develop it has been around for quite awhile.

“Before the pandemic the pieces were in place to provide telehealth care, but there were some obstacles,” said Tera Veale, vice-president of provider services at Daviess Community Hospital. “One was that a lot of the systems we could use were heavily regulated.”

“We have been involved in telehealth for more than a decade,” said Don Kelso, president of the Indiana Rural Health Association. “We were actually working on it before most people had even heard of it.”

One of the things that Indiana Rural Health did was try to bring telehealth to Indiana’s rural schools. The organization used a grant to set up clinic stations in school nurse offices where a doctor at one location could examine a child with the help of the school nurse.

The stations included computer linked otoscopes, stethoscopes and cameras that linked directly to the doctor’s office.

“One of the early problems we had was that equipment was quite expensive,” said Kelso. “Setting up a station could cost as much as $20,000.”

Daviess Community Hospital was among the providers that signed on to build the program. “We helped establish operations in the nurses offices at three area elementarys,” said Veale.

Expense wasn’t the only early problem. Insurance companies were reluctant to pay for telehealth visits. Also, medical professionals wanted to vet the system to be certain that it could work accurately for the benefit of the patient.

“By the time they worked through those issues we had established a number of rural telehealth centers in schools,” said Kelso. “Then when the coronavirus outbreak happened everything began to change.”

As hospitals and other medical providers looked for ways to keep patients out of waiting rooms and from being exposed to potential COVID-19, medical professionals increasingly began to rely on versions and variations of the original telehealth model.

“That was when we began receive waivers so that we could utilize Facetime, Messenger and Skype to deal directly with our patients,” said Veale. “It was also around this time that most of the insurance companies agreed to pay for telehealth visits.”

“We have seen a growth in the use of Zoom and Facetime to conduct medical evaluations,” said Kelso. “The pandemic forced practitioners to adjust.”

Telehealth may turn out to be a blessing in rural Indiana where there are fewer doctors to serve an aging population that tends to have chronic health issues like diabetes, COPD, and heart disease.

“A Facetime meeting with a doctor or nurse practitioner treating someone with ongoing chronic conditions may just be the right thing,” said Kelso. “It also may help lower health care costs while adding more accessibility for patients.”

“Not only are we doing telehealth with our hospital and clinics, a lot of a specialists that would hold regular clinics at our facilities have begun to use it,” said Veale. “All of our providers through St. Vincent’s are utilizing telehealth.”

Another area where telehealth may be able to make a big difference is in dealing with mental health issues. “You cannot believe the difference it makes for a troubled person to be able to get face to face with someone who wants to treat them,” said Kelso. “There are just so many useful things to telehealth.”

Health care professionals say not all services can be delivered through telehealth, but it appears to be something that is here to stay.

“We have begun reopening and headed back toward normal operations, but we are still doing telehealth appointments,” said Veale. “Some people prefer them. They are still uneasy with the idea of sitting in a waiting room where someone may have the coronavirus. This has increased our ability to make better access to care for our patients. Telehealth is part of the new normal and we will see more and more people using it.”

Kelso also predicts that the use of telehealth will expand in the coming years. He says it may well be the big thing in healthcare over the next decade, but he points out there are also potential problems that have to be addressed.

“The biggest obstacle for telehealth in rural Indiana is the accessibility to broadband,” he said. “You need a good system for it to be effective. The co-problem with availability is cost. A lot of people, because they are older or on fixed incomes, may not have the money to afford a high-speed service that can provide a telehealth connection.”

“Connectivity issues will be the big problem moving forward in rural Indiana,” added Veale. “For telehealth to be really effective for everyone, all people will need high speed broadband connections. That is something we do not have now in rural Indiana.”

©2020 Washington Times-Herald (Washington, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs