CASPER, Wyo. – In many ways, telehealth technology works just like any visit to your physician, therapist or other medical provider.
You simply call the office and set up an appointment.
In other ways, however, it’s a giant leap into the future.
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Telehealth, or virtual health appointments, has been around a long time. But the near-instant removal of most person-to-person contact during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed something seen as a time and money saving option right into the forefront of essential medical care.
“I definitely think it was a plunge into the deep end for the healthcare system in general,” said Joshua Hansen, D.O., a primary care physician at Sage Primary Care.
“I hope that we as providers and patients get a feel for this, and if it’s meeting our needs I think it should pave or trailblaze the way for this to be the new norm.”
Telehealth visits have mainly been performed in physicians and doctors offices for years, and has become indispensable in rural areas like Wyoming.
Traditionally a specialized computer system would allow a patient in a Casper doctor’s office, for instance, to visit with a specialist in Denver or Salt Lake, eliminating multiple time-consuming and costly long trips for routine exams.
The next telehealth step has removed the office visit entirely, enabling a patient to receive healthcare directly from their living room by using a smartphone, tablet or computer. This means fewer trips from the house, and significant less risk of contracting coronavirus.
“It can save time, it can save money, and many times we can meet the needs of our patients especially if they have fiscal or transportation issues,” said Hansen.
Home-based telehealth is designed for simplicity. In the case of Wyoming Medical Center’s clinics, Apple users receive a prompt to download an app. Android users get an email with a link to a “virtual waiting room.” In all cases a camera on their device is essential for the visit.
Physicians can do a surprising number of exams over telehealth, from basic wellness checks to diagnosing urgent care. Mental health councilors also use the technology on their patients, which is particularly important for people as the pandemic causes high stress, possible financial issues and isolation.
Issues like blood pressure, anxiety, depression, diabetes, asthma, COPD, “even heart failure, you can actually do via these telehealth visits without having to lay hands on the person for a physical exam,” said Hansen. “You can make it work, and you can make good educated changes that benefit the patient and their health.”
During the pandemic, physicians are asking people with respiratory issues to use the Wyoming Medical Center’s respiratory clinic. Hansen says even after people have visited that clinic, he’s been able to diagnose other respiratory issues via telehealth.
Medications are prescribed and dispensed as they always have been, he said. .
Telehealth is being used in numerous WMC clinics besides primary care. They include pulmonary care, endocrine and diabetes, nephrology, neurosurgery and spine, and the pain center.
The technology is in use well beyond the WMC’s clinics as well. The VA clinic has installed telehealth devices in its Casper and other state offices and during the pandemic, the clinics are relying entirely on telehealth.
“These virtual care options allow Veterans to communicate with care teams from the comfort of their home–options include telephone appointments or video teleconferencing through VA Video Connect,” said the VA in a release last month.
Cori Cosner-Burton of Mercer Family Resource Center said in an email that numerous services with councilors are available via the virtual meeting app Zoom or by standard telephone. Those include family, couples and individual counseling, parenting classes, and youth alcohol, tobacco or drug intervention education.
Regulatory restrictions limiting much home-based telehealth have been temporarily waved in light of the pandemic, but healthcare experts see a future where they are permanently adjusted or eliminated altogether.
Medicare wellness visits, for example, were never allowed via telehealth before the pandemic, said Hansen.
Hansen says there is a learning curve for both patients and physicians, but once overcome he says both parties tend to have positive experiences.
There are others who aren’t as comfortable with telehealth, and the traditional doctor’s visit won’t vanish entirely after the pandemic eases.
“There’s a therapeutic aspect to physical visits between you and your doctor, and that’s missed in the telehealth type of visit,” said Hansen, “but I definitely see some pluses.”
The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:
What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.
If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.
Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.
For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email: email@example.com
- Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
- Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.