Generations Family Health Center | Willimantic, Norwich, Putnam and Danielson CT

Local doctors embrace use of telehealth

Local Doctors Embrace Use of Telehealth

Saturday, April 25, 2020

LISA MASSICOTTE, CHRONICLE STAFF WRITER

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In the era of COVID-19, routine doctor and mental health appointments are no longer based on face- to- face exams.

Instead, they are now primarily face- to- computer or ear- to- phone interactions.

They have to be to ensure patient and doctor safety.

" It all changed rapidly a few weeks ago," Rushford Medical Director and Hartford HealthCare Vice President of Addiction Services Dr. Jonathan Craig Allen said from his Farmington office. " There's been a very steep learning curve."

Rushford is affiliated with the Hartford HealthCare network, which also oversees Windham Community Memorial Hospital in Willimantic and Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield.

COVID- 19 curveballs have been thrown at clinicians throughout the world, forcing health care providers to embrace and abruptly transition over to telemedicine.

Despite obvious limitations, physical and behavioral health clinicians are staying positive after discovering a few silver linings to telehealth.

Those silver linings include the elimination of some barriers to access care, increased work efficiency, more flexibility in scheduling and the ability to get to know patients in new ways.

" It makes it more accessible for patients, such as the elderly, who may have difficulty coming into a clinic," said Dr. Mohammed Qureshi, a doctor at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich and WCMH.

Other doctors and therapists said telehealth also helps patients who have difficulty prioritizing schedules or those who have anxiety.

Insurance has also changed for telehealth during this era of the coronavirus.

" Prior to the pandemic, most insurance companies wouldn't pay for telehealth, or if they did, it was only under certain conditions. We are grateful to the governor and the insurance commissioner for listening to our concerns and stepping in right away to require that this be a covered service," said Susan Grace, who is a psychiatric nurse at the Main Street Wellness Group in Coventry.

Additionally, in contrast to what some previously perceived as an impersonal and impalpable version of health care, telehealth has allowed for new, meaningful connections between doctors and patients, according to local health practitioners.

" I hadn't expected it, but it's really a rewarding experience to see ( patients) in a natural environment," Allen said before listing a few examples of how he was able to better see into the life of his patients.

Allen said, through video appointments, he's been able to meet his patients' dogs or cats that are often talked about, meet patients' spouses, see any projects that his patients have taken on within their homes and see their living spaces.

This gave him the opportunity to get to know his patients in a different way, he said.

" One guy showed me the remodeling job he'd done in his kitchen. He's kind of isolated, you know, go to work and go home and he'd say to me, ' well, I'm working on my house,'" Allen explained.

" And I always wondered what he was really doing in his house and then he showed me his remodeled kitchen so I was actually able to see it."

Generations Family Health Center's Dr. Heidi Tucker has experienced some of her patients being more comfortable with disclosing information to her via a phone or video appointment.

" I feel that people, so far, have been more comfortable telling me things that maybe they wouldn't have in person," Tucker said.

For that to happen though, both Tucker and Allen said the patient must first have an area in the home they feel comfortable talking in.

Allen explained many of his patients go to their parked cars for their appointments.

Tucker said she now has extra time to schedule follow- ups and check- ins with her patients a few days after their initial telehealth appointment.

She added telehealth is helpful for practitioners and patients during medication management and reconciliation because the patient has full access to all their prescription bottles at home.

" It has a lot of the perks of doing an in- home visit, but there's the drawback of not having actual physical contact," Tucker explained.

Every clinician asked agreed that while there have been many learning points, telehealth is no replacement to meeting a doctor in person.

" When you are examining the patients ( in- person), you sometimes notice certain things. When that's not available, you have to make a clinical judgment from just looking at the patient, Qureshi said.

Clinics and medical practices are still seeing people who do not have COVID19 symptoms in person for specific issues.

For example, Tucker stated some types of rashes are simply impossible to diagnose over a computer screen.

With all the challenges overcome, lessons learned and limitations recognized, clinicians agreed telehealth may play a bigger role in life after the coronavirus crisis.

" These are changing times and I feel that the world after COVID-19 is going to be definitely different after these experiences we've had using telemedicine," Qureshi said.

Follow Lisa Massicotte on Twitter @LMassicotteTC.

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