With strict social-distancing rules intact across the state, health care providers are adapting to telehealth visits for minor care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health practitioners in Colorado say social-distancing efforts have added momentum to the growth of telehealth and telemedicine, and created opportunities to fill a growing gap in access to health care in rural areas like Southwest Colorado.
The Federal Communications Commission announced last week it would provide the Children’s Hospital of Colorado with about $800,000 from the CARES Act to implement telehealth services across the state. Valley-Wide Health Systems Inc. in Alamosa was also awarded more than $45,000 to provide virtual health visits for COVID-19 screening and primary medical care.
Some local practices, such as Pediatric Partners of the Southwest, already had the telemedicine infrastructure in place to meet certain patients’ needs through a video camera. Specialists at the Children’s Hospital can meet with patients in Southwest Colorado virtually from Pediatric Partners’ offices, so parents don’t need to make the six- to seven-hour drive to Denver.
Health insurance providers offered to waive the cost of telehealth and telemedicine visits because of COVID-19, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services loosened security restrictions to allow visits to take place over common platforms like FaceTime and Skype.
Parents concerned about a rash on their child’s leg can hold it up to the camera for a diagnosis. People with a case of strep who want to avoid a doctor’s office visit during the COVID-19 outbreak can open their mouth wide for the camera and get a prescription sent electronically to the nearest pharmacy.
Kate Hartzell, executive director of the Southwestern Colorado Area Health Education Center, said even though telehealth existed in the area before COVID-19, it has emerged as a solution for non-COVID patients who may not otherwise seek medical help because they are fearful of contracting the virus.
“Usage has dramatically increased,” Hartzell said.
Hartzell’s Durango-based nonprofit organization has been working with Pediatric Partners to educate other health care providers in the area about the benefits and logistics of telemedicine.
Amanda Harrison, the telemedicine outreach manager at Pediatric Partners, said she is hopeful that some of the changes to expand telemedicine will remain in place post-COVID-19, because it makes initial visits with doctors and physicians more convenient.
“A lot of patients who were hesitant before are now asking for it,” Harrison said.
Pediatric Partners in Durango receives patients from Cortez, Pagosa Springs and even Telluride. But the drive to the Durango office for a virtual visit with a specialist in Denver is nothing compared with the drive patients normally would have to make to the city, Harrison said.
Platforms like FaceTime and Skype will likely no longer be used for telemedicine after the COVID-19 virus subsides because those platforms are not considered secure.
But Harrison said the telehealth expansion under COVID-19 has “opened us up to talking about how we can make these new rules still work.”
Providers who were hesitant before are realizing they “really can take care of their patients over telemedicine,” Harrison said.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Mógúán Behavioral Health Program already had a cyber-secure telehealth platform in place before the spread of COVID-19. It is easy to use, and operates similarly to Zoom or Google Hangouts.
As the tribe went under lockdown, Mógúán Behavioral Health Project Director Todd Giesen, made sure therapists were set up to provide care from their homes.
“A lot of folks were very amenable to it,” Giesen said in a telephone interview with The Durango Herald.
But in the first week of telehealth visits, sessions would cut out after six minutes, Giesen said. Problems with internet connectivity were causing the telehealth platform to burn through a month’s worth of data for smartphone users only a few minutes into the call, Giesen said.
The tribe has been able to work with Verizon to provide routers that service entire remote communities like Mancos Creek and White Mesa.
“The efforts to ensure the Ute Mountain tribal members are served has been a team effort with multiple departments, volunteers and leadership collaborating,” Giesen said.
But other long-term options for larger communities require costly infrastructure and manpower, such as installing fiber-optic cables.
“It’s not just a tribal endeavor, we need government partners,” Giesen said.
Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman Manuel Heart said he has been working to strengthen relations with the states of Colorado and Utah, as well as agencies like the FCC, which will be providing funding opportunities for more projects like telehealth during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Telehealth is on the increase and here to stay,” Giesen said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.