The Doctor Will (Virtually) See You Now
Telehealth visits expand access to vital care throughout East Central Indiana.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to health care became especially critical. However, when social distancing restrictions limited in-person office visits, many facilities had to readjust their methods of care.
In East Central Indiana, health care providers used telehealth videoconferencing to reach patients, and today, this technology is being used to serve individuals throughout the region, including rural and underserved populations.
In 2020, Muncie-based Meridian Health Services, which provides care to patients in over 40 of Indiana’s counties, increased telehealth visits from 3% to 60% of their overall visits.
While the health care system had been using videoconferencing technology to treat some patients, the pandemic forced them to quickly expand the offering to more populations.
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“For example, before the pandemic, we were in the schools, working directly with kids to provide them with health services. Then when schools transitioned to virtual learning, we had to find a way to get services to families in their homes, and telehealth was a way to do that,” says Bob Coles, vice president of Meridian Health Services.
Coles admits the widespread implementation of telehealth did not have the easiest start, as both patients and providers had to adapt to the technology.
However, training, along with the convenience and accessibility, soon outweighed any challenges. “We’re finding that many people would rather have a telehealth visit than come to the office. There are still those who prefer an in-person visit, and we definitely still provide that service to them, but a growing number of patients like the accessibility and convenience of telehealth visits,” Coles says.
“The providers really like it too because the way we are able to use telehealth technology, we can have a provider actually be in their home, the patient can be in their home, and the service can be provided home to home.”
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IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, IN also ramped up its telehealth offerings in 2020.
Shuchi Talwar, a family medicine practitioner, says telehealth has been a beneficial tool for following up with patients with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or hypertension.
“In this case, we’ve examined you, we’ve seen you in the office and now, we can follow up by talking to you on the phone or on the computer while you’re at home,” Talwar says. “In a rural setting where resources are limited, patients may not have access to specialists or other providers. With telehealth, I can refer them to a specialist here, and they can have access to that care without having to travel.”
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Reid Health has used telehealth to connect patients in its eight-county service area to specialists at the main campus in Richmond, IN for years.
For example, patients can visit their local provider’s office and be connected to a cardiologist miles away. Administrators worried patients would find the service impersonal, but Craig Kinyon, president and CEO of Reid Health, says patient survey scores were in the 99th percentile.
“They still felt that their physician was dedicated to them, and they felt the physician was completely engaged in their care,” Kinyon says.
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In 2020, Reid Health broadened its telehealth service to include in-home videoconferencing to help limit the spread of and reduce exposure to COVID-19. Kinyon says telehealth is also beneficial because it allows physicians to see more patients and is a more convenient option for busy families.
“I have four daughters, and one of my daughters has three daughters of her own. When she’s not feeling well, she has to pack all the children in the car to go to the doctor’s office, and it can be a hassle. (With telehealth), she can get treated for a number of ailments without leaving the house,” Kinyon says.
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