Got a sore arm or just need to renew a prescription? You can still address it with a doctor in Letcher County even if you don’t want to leave home during the coronavirus outbreak.
Whitesburg-based Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation began working early last week to set up a telemedicine system to serve patients with earaches and other minor problems who don’t want to visit a doctor’s office during this period of social distancing brought on by the coronavirus.
“It’s a good way not to get sick by having to come into the clinic,” said Lee Caudill, who works with MCHC’s information technology, or IT department.
MCHC opened its telemedicine system on March 18, with doctors seeing three patients online before closing time. The number of patients making online connections with MCHC providers grew to 80 by Monday afternoon, and then more than doubled to 176 by the end of day Tuesday.
“It’s grown that much that quickly,” said Caudill.
WHAT IS TELEMEDICINE?
Got a smartphone, tablet or computer? That’s all you really need to use telemedicine, called TeleHealth by MCHC.
Generally, it just refers to a video visit with a remotely located care provider like a doctor or therapist over a secure connection. The patient uses a website link or an app to connect.
It’s also a way for patients to check in with a doctor if they think they have symptoms of COVID-19.
The goal: Prevent the spread of coronavirus, especially to those who are most vulnerable, older people and those with existing health conditions.
Virtual care has long been touted as a way to get help quickly instead of waiting days to see a doctor, yet Americans have been slow to embrace it. There are signs that may be changing because of COVID-19.
L.M. “Mike” Caudill, the chief executive officer for MCHC, a not-for-profit healthcare provider with clinics in Letcher and four other southeastern Kentucky counties, said the organization had long-planned to get its telemedicine system up and going before going all in after COVID-19 spread into Kentucky.
“It’s something we’ve been wanting to do and have been working at it, but for several reasons you don’t have the motivation you have now,” said Caudill, whose late mother Lois A. Baker helped start MCHC in 1971.
Tyler Cornett, telemedicine facilitator at MCHC, said the operation has gone smoothly so far. He said that persons who want to stay home and see doctors and other healthcare providers online should visit the company’s website at www.mchcky.com or call its TeleHealth Hotline at 606-633-6067. Available on the Internet or by phone will be instructions on downloading the communications software Zoom and information about which electronic devices can be used for the virtual doctor visit.
The service works on Amazon’s Kindle reader, Apple’s iPad and other tablet computers, smart phones, and most laptop and desktop computers. “Any smart device with a camera,” said Lee Caudill.
MCHC also has an audio-only option, and doesn’t require that all patients to have Internet access.
Telemedicine often involves diagnosing and treating a new health problem but is also used to keep tabs on an existing, long-term conditions like diabetes. It’s more than calling to get a prescription refill, although doctors can write some prescriptions, like antibiotics, after a telemedicine visit.
The federal government recently said it will immediately expand telemedicine access to help people with Medicare, its coverage program for those 65 and over as well as younger patients who qualify because of a disability. And it has urged states to expand the service to those enrolled in Medicaid, the government coverage program for people with low incomes.
Medicare coverage of telemedicine had been limited, largely to rural areas where patients had to go to specially-designated sites for their visits. Many Medicare Advantage plans run by insurers also provide access to telemedicine.
WHAT’S IT FOR?
Sinus infections, bronchitis, the flu, asthma, pink eye or fevers are just a few examples. Telemedicine can handle a lot of care that would normally send patients to a doctor.
Dermatologists can examine warts or moles remotely. Therapists also can treat anxiety, depression or stress while allowing patients to remain in a place like their home where they feel more comfortable.
Patients worried about the coronavirus also can get a quick cyber consultation with a doctor. Many telemedicine providers have designed computer programs to ask patients initial questions to help gauge their health or their risk of virus exposure.
WHAT ARE ITS LIMITS?
A virtual physician cannot treat chest pains, broken bones or cuts that need stitches. That doctor also won’t be able to perform a coronavirus test.
In some cases, they also may have to refer patients to another doctor for an in-person visit.
Doctors also say there are some parts of an in-person visit that telemedicine cannot replicate. A doctor may spot additional health problems simply by noticing a change in a regular patient’s behavior or appearance.
WHY CAN PATIENTS BE SLOW TO TRY IT?
Researchers have long said that health care behavior is hard to change. In telemedicine’s case, patients may be especially reluctant to try something unfamiliar, especially if it doesn’t involve their regular doctor.
Awareness is another problem. People may hear about telemedicine from their employer or insurer and then forget about it when they need help a few months later.
But people frequently become repeat customers after trying telemedicine, some doctors say, and they think the awareness created by the coronavirus will last long after the pandemic fades.
Tyler Cornett said his grandfather, who is in his 70s, was going to use MCHC’s TeleHealth system for the first time this week.
Compiled from Mountain Eagle and Associated Press reports