Danbury – Health care leaders are fighting the stifling effect that the coronavirus is having on doctor’s visits with popular technology.
And patients don’t need to leave their home.
Thanks to newly relaxed rules in Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Connecticut families can visit the doctor virtually, using the same teleconferencing technology that has made apps such as FaceTime and Skype household names.
“The patient-doctor relationship is still there,” says Dr. Christopher Lehrach, president of the medical group for Nuvance Health, a seven-hospital network that includes Danbury and Norwalk. “You are still having face-to-face consultations, and elements of the physical examination are still there, such as visual observation, and it is still our own physicians caring for our own patients.”
Lehrach should know.
As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated into a public health crisis, average daily doctor visits to the Nuvance medical group dropped 40 percent, from 5,000 to 3,000. But since last week, when Nuvance launched its Virtual Visits telehealth program, 2,400 of those daily doctor visits have been converted to the system’s video conferencing program.
And in downtown Danbury, a health care center serving 15,000 people from the city and surrounding towns launched a telehealth program where patients can receive a variety of Medicaid-covered treatments while they and their doctors are at home, observing social distancing norms.
The telehealth program, run by the Connecticut Institute for Community’s Greater Danbury Health Care Center allows patients to consult with a physician about everything from pediatrics and behavioral health to COVID-19 symptoms – from a patient’s a smartphone, computer or telephone.
“We have been building this platform in anticipation that this day would come, and we would have to move forward on it,” said Katie Curran, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer and general counsel. “We are working out the kinks, because it obviously puts a great demand on internet service, but we are moving through it and reaching out to everyone who has canceled a doctor’s appointment with us for fear of contracting the coronavirus.”
The remote medicine initiatives in Danbury follow an announcement from the White House last week that Medicare will immediately expand telehealth coverage nationwide so that older Americans who are most susceptible to the coronavirus can stay home. A related announcement followed from Gov. Ned Lamont expanding virtual medicine options for patients and doctors, and extending Medicaid’s coverage of telemedicine for the poor.
Many of the Greater Danbury Heath Care Center’s clients depend on Medicaid to cover health expenses.
“Prior to (Lamont’s) order, Medicaid didn’t cover telehealth,” Curran said. “People who are poor are usually the ones who don’t have cars to get to a doctor’s appointment.”
Statewide, remote medicine is an emerging option for health care systems trying to conserve hospital resources for treating the next wave of coronavirus infections, while still serving their patients’ needs for general and specialty medicine.
Remote medicine is also way to screen people with COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and shortness of breath, without risking the spread of infection.
“Telehealth technology is an important and growing tool used by hospitals and healthcare providers during this crisis to treat patients both in the hospital and those at home,” said Fiona Phelan, spokesperson for the Connecticut Hospital Association.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, but older adults and people with health problems can suffer severe respiratory illness, including pneumonia. Worldwide, 460,000 cases had been reported by Thursday, and while most people recover within weeks, more than 20,000 have died.
In the United States, 68,000 had been infected by late Thursday afternoon, and nearly 1,000 had died. In Connecticut, 21 people have died, and 1,000 people have been infected since the first case was confirmed at Danbury Hospital on March 8.
For people who can’t risk infection by going to the doctor, remote medicine is an important tool in the war against the coronavirus.
To schedule a telehealth visit, Nuvance patients should call their doctor or provider, or visit https://nuvancehealth.org/virtualvisits.
To register at the Greater Danbury Community Health Center for a telehealth conference, patients should call 203-743-0100 or e-mail [email protected]
“The alternative is no health care at all,” Nuvance’s Lehrach said. “The input from patients so far is very positive.”
[email protected] 203-731-3342