For healthcare professionals around the world, COVID-19 has meant a major shift in the way care is delivered. In place of in-person visits, providers must make a difficult decision: close up shop or invest in telehealth.
Historically, healthcare providers have been hesitant to adopt new technology due to budget constraints, training concerns, and worries about security and compliance. But, under COVID-19, failure to adopt isn’t really an option for most organizations.
So what does this mean to healthcare providers? How can they adapt in this time of rapid change? Telemedicine is the answer.
I caught up with Licensed Professional Counselor, Briana Jurrema to get her thoughts on how her organization has worked to adopt telehealth practices during COVID-19. Jurrema graduated from the University of Kentucky and is now practicing in Houston, Texas with Gulf Coast Center.
Were you practicing telehealth prior to COVID-19?
Because we’re working in a somewhat rural area with only a handful of prescribers, there was already a system in place for prescribers to take on telehealth appointments. For counseling and other mental health appointments, telehealth was not an option prior to COVID-19.
What does a typical telehealth appointment look like for you? How is it different from an in-person appointment?
There are a few additional steps in a telehealth appointment. For example, we have to collect client consent forms prior to telehealth appointments. We need to make sure we have a way to call the patient back if we’re disconnected. We also need a phone number for their emergency contact. We try to ensure our clients are choosing a safe and private space for their appointment. Being able to see the patient’s environment is a real benefit of telehealth. As a counselor, I can identify triggers or stressors in their space that may be hindering their growth.
Otherwise, we try to make telehealth appointments as similar to in-person appointments as possible for our clients. We’re continuing as usual with working on the patient’s counseling goals.
At what point did you realize you would need to practice telehealth to continue delivering care during this pandemic?
We stopped seeing clients in-person in mid-March. Initially, we were just checking-in with clients briefly over the phone. When we realized the pandemic would keep counselors home longer than initially anticipated, we started training for telehealth adoption before officially seeing clients online.
Note: During COVID-19, Health and Human Services (HHS) has relaxed some HIPAA compliance requirements to make telehealth more accessible. If you are unsure how to get started with telehealth during this time, check out this notification from HHS.
How much of a factor is the quality of online services? How do you mitigate technical issues during an appointment?
This is a recurring issue as some of our clients just don’t have access to a strong internet connection. We encourage clients to find a place in their house with a good signal. This may mean connecting their computer to the router with an ethernet cable, if possible, or asking other people in the house to temporarily stop streaming, gaming, etc.
What are some of the benefits you’ve seen from the adoption of telehealth?
here are a ton of upsides to telehealth, especially for clients. Without an office or waiting room, there is decreased stigma around seeking mental health services and it’s much more convenient. With telehealth, we’re improving access to services for people with unreliable transportation or busy schedules. Scheduling an appointment is easy and you’re able to receive quality care directly in your home.
Tips for incorporating telehealth into your practice.
Here are five key takeaways from our chat to help your organization make telehealth a part of your healthcare services.
1. Have a plan.
If you’re working with clients out of a home office, make sure you have a plan. You may not have access to the tools you usually use in your office. Jurrema suggests keeping digital copies of any handouts you typically use easily accessible on your desktop. “For my adult clients, I’ll email reading materials or worksheets for them to review prior to appointments. For kids, I make sure to have tools for engagement nearby, such as toys or worksheets, to keep their attention.”
2. Promote privacy.
Privacy can be tough especially during this time when clients are at home with their entire family during appointments. Jurrema suggests using headphones to help ensure that at least half of the patient’s conversation is completely quiet. Similarly, have clients sit in an area near a router (or even connecting directly to the router, if possible) to mitigate technical issues.
3. Send out auto-reminders.
We’ve all been guilty of losing track of time during this pandemic. Do what your can to help clients make it to their appointments on time by sending out email or text reminders prior to appointments.
4. Run through a checklist.
After you receive consent from your patient to proceed with their virtual appointment, check-in with their surroundings. Are there improvements that could be made to promote well-being and safety in their home? Make sure to gather important information from your patient such as emergency contacts, phone number, etc.
5. Prepare your space.
The provider’s space is just as important as the patient’s. We’ve all seen video chat mishaps online, so steer clear of those mistakes by keeping your background minimal and professional. Try to have a light source in front of your face, such as a window, and avoid harsh lighting by keeping overhead lights off. Looking at a second screen or notes can be off-putting for clients, so be mindful to make eye contact as consistently as possible.
While the current circumstances are less than ideal, access to telehealth is a major step forward for clients. Telehealth makes it easy for clients to take control of their care by scheduling appointments online and seeing providers on their terms. Telehealth appointments are faster and more convenient, which encourages clients to show up more consistently and engage with their provider.