The COVID-19 pandemic has forced clinics across the country to get creative to continue to provide care to their patients, which resulted in increases in the use of telehealth services. Despite more and more people returning to in-person visits, many clinicians say telehealth services will continue to be utilized in the future. 

While local clinics were already utilizing telehealth services to some extent before the pandemic, COVID-19 required local clinics to vastly expand the services offered. 

Katy Trail Community Health Chief Executive Officer Chris Stewart said Katy Trail had been offering telehealth for behavioral health appointments prior to the pandemic but started providing all services virtually, including medical and dental, after the pandemic began. 

“I was surprised at how quick we were able to make the switch,” Stewart explained. “We started with our behavioral health providers because behavioral health really lends itself to a virtual visit. Our primary care providers were a little hesitant about it, worried that they wouldn't be able to provide as comprehensive of a visit as they might need to for their patients...

“Again, there was concern, but they jumped into the deep end of the pool and did a remarkable job and now they love them,” she added. “They absolutely love them and they say for specific patients it is the best possible platform for specific patients. I was very pleased at how quickly our clinicians really adapted.”

Bothwell Regional Health Center Vice President of Clinic Operations Keith Morrow said Bothwell clinics had been working on getting telehealth services implemented, but the option wasn’t 100% rolled out until the pandemic hit. Morrow noted while it was an adjustment, once patients and providers started utilizing telehealth, “it became part of our resources they liked it.”

While telehealth is not utilized as much as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, Morrow said it is used more than previously. He estimated a little less than 100 visits a week are done on telehealth now, with three times that being done at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“Every clinic is set up to use it, some use it more than others,” Morrow said. “Some of that is the patient population type deal or provider preference. One of the interesting things that we seem to have providers using it more is for the nursing homes. I think that is a two-way street. One is to protect those patients in nursing homes but then also to protect our providers. We actually loaned iPads to many of the nursing homes here in the community so they would have equipment to do it.”

Stewart and Morrow both said virtual visits are similar to visits in person. Bothwell and Katy Trail provide patients with a link that will send them to a virtual waiting room where an employee will take their information. The provider’s nurse then completes the intake information, getting what vitals they can, and the patient then meets with the provider. 

While everything obviously cannot be done through telehealth visits, it does cut down on time individuals have to spend physically in a provider’s office, whether for convenience, transportation issues, time constraints, or health concerns. 

“Our providers are talking to the patients who might be concerned about going out so people with multiple chronic illnesses or with lung problems who are concerned about going out into the community, those are great candidates (for virtual visits),” Stewart said. 

Morrow and Stewart said both organizations have had issues when it comes to patients having adequate broadband, internet access and equipment to do virtual visits. Stewart said a grant will allow Katy Trail to distribute hotspots in the next few weeks to assist with this issue. Morrow said Bothwell is also working on some grant items to help with technology. 

Stewart said security is a common concern for Katy Trail patients considering a virtual visit. She assured Katy Trail uses HIPAA compliant platforms. For those who may be worried about the technology and figuring out the process, Morrow said Bothwell will do demo visits.

“We can do a demo visit with them so they can kind of see what it feels like, what it looks like. Also, make sure that their equipment that they have would work,” Morrow said. “If it’s a phone or if it’s an iPad or if it’s a desktop or laptop, getting them comfortable with those aspects would hopefully help their fears…Really getting them comfortable with the technology piece and interacting with the person on the other end of the line. We’ve done that with patients to just make sure their systems works and they know how to do it before the actual visit starts.”

Stewart said Katy Trail has found success utilizing telehealth and about 20% of its visits are done virtually now, which Stewart would like to increase to about 30%. 

For plans at Bothwell, Morrow said it comes down to the patients’ decisions. 

“If some of them want the one-on-one interaction or someone wants the convenience, I think it’s really a patient decision,” Morrow explained. “Obviously, if we get a big push again with COVID and slowing things down because positive rates are so high, then obviously we want to protect the patients and the providers. 

“The less interaction you have face to face, the less chance you have getting it (COVID-19),” he added. “In that aspect, if you have a lot of other disease issues that put you at risk, then we need you to take the precautions of limiting your interactions with others, and that would definitely be the No. 1 of telehealth.”

Bothwell can be contacted at 660-826-8833. Katy Trail can be contacted at 1-877-733-5824 Monday through Friday.

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