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Use of telehealth surges during COVID-19 pandemic - but what is it?

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Posted at 12:18 PM, Oct 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-27 14:18:03-04

GREAT FALLS — Alluvion Health CEO Trista Besich, Alluvion Behavioral Health Director Dusti Zimmer, Governor Steve Bullock, and a number of other health and government officials advocated for the use of telehealth earlier this month.

In fact, according to a report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Medicare primary visits done via telehealth accounted for about 0.1% of all Medicare primary visits in February 2020. In April, about 43.5% of Medicare primary care visits were provided virtually.

There’s no doubt that that’s a significant jump, and that it indicates that the rising popularity of telemedicine appears to correlate with the beginning of the current pandemic, but what exactly is it?

Telemedicine, which has been recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) since the coronavirus pandemic started, allows patients to access healthcare virtually, often without having to leave the comfort of their homes. Some of the most common ways that this has been utilized to this point are over the phone, via video calls on the computer, or even through mobile apps.

The CDC identifies three types of what they call “Telehealth Modalities”:

  1. Synchronous: Real-time phone or video interaction. This is most commonly done on a smartphone, tablet, or computer
  2. Asynchronous: This includes what the CDC refers to as “store and forward technology” where messages, images, or data are pre-recorded or compiled and sent to a patient.
  3. Remote patient monitoring: This allows direct transmission of a patient’s clinical measurements from a to their healthcare provider.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has contributed to this rise in popularity, but health officials are also looking at other current and future factors as they promote Telemedicine.

“In our rural markets, especially when you get into winter and this time of year, it gets even more challenging for patients to get into town and to get access to a provider or a clinic,” said Besich. “Televideo and teleaudio were definitely key components for us.”

Many parts of Montana would fall under the category that Trista is referring to as “rural markets.” If driving long distances to get to your nearest hospital or healthcare provider doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then there may be Telehealth options available to you.

The technology is not just for COVID-19 patients either.

During a joint event earlier this month Zimmer told the story of one patient who was receiving treatment in an addiction recovery program. Although she noted that not every instance of Telehealth appointments used in the Behavioral Health world have been as successful as this example, it shows that it’s possible.

But let’s say you don’t have to drive too far to get to Benefis or Alluvion, or St. Peter’s in Helena, what reason might you have for wanting to stay home for your healthcare appointment?

“Hospitals across the state are required to have a surge plan, and we have all implemented our surge plans,” says Benefis Director for Emergency Services & Critical Care, Kevin Langkiet. “There’s more people coming in (to Benefis) than are leaving. We’re getting stressed and we need some help, and that help is to stay home, wear your mask, wash your hands, and stay home whenever possible.”

With many hospitals across Montana battling the pandemic and bed capacity, some are asking people not to come in if they can avoid it. On top of that, the risk of contracting COVID-19 when you walk into a hospital, even if you wear a mask and take all the necessary precautions, will always be higher than if you stayed at home.

Benefis, Alluvion, the Great Falls Clinic, St. Peter’s Health, the Shodair Children’s Hospital, and other healthcare providers across the state already offer some form of Telehealth services, from phone calls to virtual appointments online; some even have mobile apps that you can download to access certain services.