Telehealth Article in Rolling Thunder
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 31,000 visits statewide.
In Pittsfield and in many communities around Maine, telehealth is helping primary care providers keep up with their many patients while enabling patients to get care in the comfort of their own home.
“Seeing patients in their own environment has been the greatest asset,” says Donna Huff, PMHNP, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Northern Light Primary Care in Pittsfield, a practice of Northern Light Sebasticook Valley Hospital. “I can ‘meet’ their partners, children and pets. They have their medication bottles nearby so we can be sure they are taking their medications correctly. It gives patients who may have had difficulty making it to appointments, due to transportation or other reasons, a great option for important behavioral health care. It’s been a big win for patients during the pandemic.”
Huff has found that the number of patients interested in telehealth visits continues to grow. And she’s not alone.
Emily Cianchette and Patti Summers, both family nurse practitioners at Northern Light Primary Care in Pittsfield, are pleased about the reception to telehealth.
“I have had telehealth visits with people of all ages, all of whom have been engaged and so happy to be able to ‘be seen’ without having to physically come into the practice during these uncertain times,” reports Cianchette. “It feels so good to be able to stay connected to our patients who need us.”
Summers echoes those sentiments. “We have been able to reassure patients and ensure they are able to get food and supplies as well find out if they have someone checking on them. Their safety is an important part of their health. I have been able to manage high blood pressure and adjust medications over the video. I have been able to see wounds and rashes on the video and start treatment before something possibly turns into an emergency room visit.”
One of Cianchette’s patients, Dora Miles, who gave us permission to mention her, is a believer in telehealth. “I’ve been careful about not going out unless absolutely necessary, so having a telehealth visit with Emily was the perfect option right now. Plus, I am comfortable with the video technology because we use it to visit with our grandkids.”
Summers and Cianchette add that it’s fun to see all generations pitching in to help family members with telehealth. “I have watched the grandkids helping their grandparents get everything set up with Zoom. And I’ve also seen some tech-savvy older people too – we’re relying on each other when needed and we get the connections made!” Summers says.
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 Sebasticook Valley 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 work for the people we serve.”
While primary care and other practices are starting to slowly schedule patients for in-person office visits when medically necessary and for time sensitive issues, 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 Sebasticook Valley 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.”