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Telehealth Is Here To Stay

Date: 05/21/2020

The pandemic has changed the way we connect with others. Whether it’s online meetings, virtual classrooms, or video happy hours and book clubs, we are finding ways to interact in the era of social distancing. At Northern Light Health, we have been using technology like this for a limited, few clinical applications and system administration for about a decade. It is particularly useful in states like Maine, where people are spread across vast geography and traveling can be a hardship. Prior to March, Northern Light was doing a handful of patient visits using telemedicine. In March the system logged almost 7,500 virtual visits, and in April that number skyrocketed to 36,000 visits statewide.

In Waterville, and communities all over Maine, telehealth is helping primary and specialty care providers keep up with their many patients while enabling patients to get care in the comfort of their own home. 

Northern Light Inland Hospital medical staff chief Cathie Kimball, DO, who is also a family physician with Northern Light Primary Care in downtown Waterville, says that telehealth is especially helpful for her elderly patients, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. “It has encouraged me to be creative in assessing my patients. It is challenging my assumptions about what I need to assess – and reinforcing what we know about taking a careful history and listening to the patient.  Telehealth also gives me an opportunity to see a patient in a home environment, which provides insights I don’t get with an office visit.”

Dr. Kimball is finding that many of her older patients are already familiar with the virtual technology as they connect with children and grandchildren from a distance. She’s looking forward to being able to use telehealth to stay connected with her patients who are “snowbirds” and winter in warmer climates.

Kamlesh Bajpai, DO, a physician with Northern Light Primary Care in Waterville, has been caring for people in the community for nearly 40 years and says he’s impressed. “I see a lot of patients in my office every day under normal circumstances, but during the pandemic telehealth has allowed me to have the ongoing healthcare connection with patients who may not be comfortable going out at this time. It’s an important option to provide.” 

“The enthusiasm with which patients and medical staff have embraced this new technology has been heartwarming to say the least,” says Gavin Ducker, MD, co-president of Northern Light Health’s medical group. “We have been able to reach members of our community who might not otherwise have received the care they needed during the crisis.”

Lance Feller, MD, of Northern Light Rheumatology in Waterville agrees. “I think perhaps the best part is flexibility. We’re able to address patient needs more readily without having them travel to the office. Particularly during the pandemic, it allows me to communicate with and continue to manage patients who would be at a high risk for becoming quite ill if they caught COVID-19.” Feller adds that about a third of the practice’s visits are happening through telemedicine right now and he anticipates that percentage will grow as more patients become accustomed to Zoom, the virtual meeting technology that Northern Light Health uses with patients.

At first, some patients were a little skeptical about using Zoom, concerned that it may not be secure or private – but that could not be further from the truth for Northern Light Health’s platform. Jim Douglas, DO, Northern Light Health’s regional medical information officer for Inland Hospital says, “Please rest assured that we are not using the “consumer” grade Zoom system. Our corporate Zoom account comes with many safeguards and is HIPAA compliant. It is supported by our internal information systems technical staff and third-party professionals who specialize in the healthcare industry.”

Dr. Douglas notes that he is, “Hopeful that we will be able to expand telehealth access to specialists from outside our region which is a wonderful way to make healthcare safely work for the people we serve.”

While primary care and other practices are starting to slowly schedule patients for in-person office visits, leaders say they are excited that telehealth is here to stay.

“Our patients and providers see the immense value, it’s secure, and it’s easy to use,” says Terri Vieira, president of Inland Hospital. “While it will never fully replace the need for some real face-to-face medical visits, telehealth is now a regular part of how we deliver care as we focus on the needs of each individual.”

For more information about whether a telehealth appointment is appropriate for you, ask your provider or visit northernlighthealth.org/Inland-Hospital.