The pandemic has changed almost every part of our lives, including health care.
With initial stay-at-home orders and attempts to keep people separated to reduce a spread of COVID-19, the health care field has been relying on a process that has been available for some time but underutilized: Telemedicine, using technology to connect patients at home or in the hospital with doctors. The practice has extended to residents of the Region’s assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities as well.
At Clarendale of Schererville, which has independent and assisted living and memory care, Executive Director Katherine Fulton said telehealth "is becoming part of the norm."
For those in independent living utilizing their own doctors, residents are assisted with equipment, working WiFi and scheduling appointments, if necessary.
For those in assisted living and memory care, staff scheduled virtual appointments when appropriate. “We encourage those to be done because it reduces residents needing to leave,” she said. “We set it up for family to come in and be present during the visit.”
Technology has played a big part in recent months in improving communication among all parties. “It’s been a huge benefit for the patient, family and the whole clinical team,” said Fulton. “Telehealth is essential not just today, but to our future. We’re really able to take care of residents in our community and reduce risk and cost of transportation.”
Telehealth has also been in use at Munster’s Hartsfield Village. “Hartsfield Village has encouraged residents, whenever possible, to continue receiving preventive medical care,” said Leslie Darrow, vice president of Post-Acute Services for Community Healthcare System and executive director at Hartsfield. "The introduction of technology has been instrumental in providing acute and preventive care, which has included telehealth visits and involving families in attending virtual medical appointments.
“At the Rehabilitation Center, patients have seen a variety of providers virtually — for example, physiatrists and infectious disease specialists. Nurse practitioners at Hartsfield Village have seen patients both in-person and remotely through a protected virtual clinic room,” Darrow said.
During the pandemic, Fulton estimates that at least 20% of the more than 150 assisted living and memory care patients have used telehealth.
Fulton said she is a big believer in telehealth as a permanent part of care for patients. “It helps to keep residents healthy and safe in their current setting. I think the need is going to get bigger and bigger. We need to look at how we are going to keep patients out of the hospital moving forward. It wasn’t really embraced before COVID-19. We’re teaching a whole new opportunity of resources to people,” she said.
Telehealth has kept residents connected, Darrow said, and some have enjoyed its ease.
Eliminating the step of transporting patients can help reduce their risk of exposure to COVID and will be useful to avoid weather complications in winter, Fulton noted.
“Some of the residents/patients are initially skeptical of the virtual medical appointment, but then are pleasantly surprised by the outcome and the quality of the visit,” Darrow said. “Our nurse practitioners have frequently used an iPad during an in-person patient visit to include family at the patient’s request. Technology has served as a welcome bridge for both information and emotional connectivity. Our nurse practitioners have been delighted with being able to virtually include family at a patient’s request that prior to the pandemic would surely have been at the bedside for a medical visit.”
Likewise, Fulton noticed that even those who may have been unsure at first seemed to like the virtual visits and want to use it even more.