Telehealth Takes Off During Pandemic


In times of crisis, people come together to develop new strategies that become commonplace after the crisis has passed. Many of the technologies we take for granted today arose during difficult circumstances.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in dramatic changes in health care around the world — and right here at home — as medical professionals have made a quick pivot from traditional face-to-face care to "telehealth," including "virtual visits" using computer and cellphone technology.

Dr. Lacey Running Hawk has been immersed in those changes, and along with professionals in education and other fields, she has learned on the fly, doing her job while simultaneously mastering the technology and developing the skills to work in a different way.

"COVID-19 really changed our clinic workflow," said Dr. Running Hawk. "We started seeing patients via telehealth in early April. This has really been the new standard for how to safely delivery primary care in the United States."

To protect patients and clinic staff by limiting physical contact and reinforcing recommendations to stay close to home, the clinic has started recommending that almost all visits start as a telehealth visit.

"When patients call our client access team to schedule an appointment, they are given the options of Zoom video visits (like Skype or FaceTime) or telephone visits. If patients then need an in-person service like lab, x-ray, vitals, or an exam, they are scheduled for a time to come in to clinic that will allow for quick and streamlined service."

When the virtual visits started, Dr. Running Hawk was concerned about losing that face-to-face connection with patients and wondered how it would be received and what it would mean for communication and care for patients.

"I have been pleasantly surprised by how well-received the visits have been," Dr. Running Hawk said. "It's actually amazing how much of a patient visit, diagnosis, and treatment can be determined just by conversation. The Zoom video visits also allow for visual physical exam."

The big advantage to virtual visits has been the ability to meet patients where they are — literally — Dr. Running Hawk added. They can be at home, on their break at work, or in their car in the parking lot.

"I think patients have appreciated the convenience of having access to providers and clinic care via phones or devices. Our no-show rates have been much lower because there isn’t the barrier of transportation to get to appointments."

The clinic has been able to accommodate all same-day visits by having providers from outer districts or remote providers see patients in any and all districts. "It has been a cool use of technology that I think will transform how we deliver care to the community even as we move beyond the pandemic," Dr. Running Hawk said.

When the Stay Home order was first signed, Dr. Running Hawk sensed a fear of scheduling any non-emergency medical visits. The clinic saw a lot of cancellations and decreased primary care visit numbers in the month of April. But as they settle into the "new normal," professionals and patients alike are realizing that life must go on, and so must chronic disease management, well-child exams, and primary care.

"We have started to see our visit schedules slowly fill up, but we are encouraging patients to schedule visits that need to be scheduled," Dr. Running Hawk emphasized. "This includes health maintenance exams, well-child visits, diabetes visits, OB care, chronic pain visits, etc. The visits may be structured a little differently now and into the foreseeable future using telehealth, but we are confident in our ability to provide quality and safe care to the community!"