By Marissa Lorenz
As the world adjusts to a new day with the COVID-19, we are all having to learn new ways of doing things, and health care is no different. Though in use for years now, telehealth has really come to the fore as the safest way for individuals to seek ongoing medical care and wellness services. But what is it? What does it look like? And what is the experience like?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Telehealth is the use of digital information and communication technologies, such as computers and mobile devices, to access health care services remotely and manage your health care.”
Patients who have used the system report that it is much like a traditional visit to the doctor, in which you are first greeted by a nurse or medical assistant, perhaps, review your history and present symptoms, and are then “met” by the physician who will conduct the examination. The visual aspect of video conferencing is noted as particularly useful.
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, Dan Herman of Kremmling has used telehealth for the first time with an existing provider in Summit and explains that, “It is just like being in the office. The first time, you feel a little uneasy,” he continues, “but soon it is very comfortable. You end up getting more time with the doctor and have the opportunity to explore questions that you may not think of in the office setting.” He further appreciates that it has allowed him to continue care with a doctor with whom he already has a “great rapport.” “I don’t want to change that.”
Providers also commend the video conferencing. Dr. Jessica Devin, an endocrinologist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat, explains that she can visually assess, for example, a diabetic’s neck and thyroid for swelling or their hands for trembling, all through the camera. She notes that, while it is “ideal” if a relationship has already been established with a patient, the reduction in time and cost to many rural patient’s travel and lodging costs provides an additional benefit of stress reduction.
Jim and Jennifer Miller, also of Kremmling, agree wholeheartedly. For the last two years, they have been traveling back and forth from the Shaw Cancer Center in Vail and other specialists, as Jennifer deals with pain and tumors resulting from previous cancer treatment. “As a caregiver, it also reduces frustration and fatigue, and the likelihood that I’ll bring anything home from hospital exposure,” says Jim. The two have been amazed and almost overwhelmed by the responsiveness and availability of providers, including specialists they did not have access to before. “Even the doctors are more relaxed and less rushed,” notes Jennifer. “They can take more time to hear questions and genuinely answer concerns.”
Another patient described their use of the Zoom platform to seek mental health support. “It was very beneficial for a mental health visit,” they describe. “The experience of confidentiality is much greater in the home setting than in the doctor’s office, even with the door closed. You feel you can discuss things that you may not bring up with people walking outside.”
Makena Line, Program Director of Mind Springs Health, says that they have been able to take all their mental health services online. “We want to be available to anyone who needs our services. We have two psychiatrists available, provide case management, and are serving new clients.” She encourages anyone to call for an appointment and most intake procedures will be done over the phone at that time. Mind Springs accepts Medicaid, some private insurance, and works on a sliding fee scale. “Telehealth services really do work,” she assures. “It’s a little different, but clients are really enjoying it. It’s a great way to continue with services at this time.”
That sentiment is echoed by Ryan Larson, Director of Clinical Operations at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical. He remarks that their hospital is using some level of telehealth in virtually every specialty department now. “It is important for ongoing care,” he states, “and it has really become a critical screening tool, allowing the provider to assess a patient and determine the urgency of their coming in for treatment.”
Dr. Wisner of Middle Park Health is also encouraging that ongoing care. “One of the most important tools in fighting this novel Coronavirus, and any pathogen we may face, is to maintain or improve our baseline health. Unfortunately, while we’re all stuck at home, our lives seemingly on standstill, chronic illness is not taking the time off with us. Things like cancer, diabetes, hypertension, depression, and anxiety continue to march right along. Continuing to actively manage these issues, or assess our risks for developing these, will help us to thrive despite these health challenges.”
There are some limitations. For example, Dr. Devin explains, you can’t take blood pressure or other measurements unless a patient has the equipment at home to do that. However, overall, providers and patients are seeing positive outcomes from the shift to telehealth and all encourage others in its use. Jennifer Miller states emphatically that she would love to continue accessing health care in this way. “Being in my chair with my laptop is awesome, rather than dealing with the pain of all day travel.” Herman agrees, “I’m able to continue to receive the level of support and care I’m used to with the provider I’m comfortable with. And living in a rural community, it’s great to know that care is there.”
If you are in need of new or ongoing health care services, be sure to call your provider’s office and ask about telehealth care! The different providers may be using different services or methods, but staff will help you to walk through the process right from your phone, tablet or computer.
High Country Health Care Silverthorne: 970-468-1003
Middle Park Health Kremmling Clinic: 970-724-3442
Mind Springs Mental Health: 970-887-2179
St. Anthony Summit Medical Center: 970-668-3300
UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center: 970-879-1322