A new age of telemedicine has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many patients are going on Zoom and other applications for secure video and email chats with physicians and other healthcare professionals throughout Santa Barbara County.
Without stepping outside their homes, people can have face-to-face talks about everything from a rash to a runny nose.
“Let’s say a patient is worried because a blood vessel broke in their eye. We’ve had a visit where our optometrist gets on the call, and our patient holds the (phone’s) camera up to the eye, well enough actually to evaluate whether there’s a need to come in,” said Sean Johnson, vice president of applications and analytics at Sansum Clinic.
“If we can figure out how to take care of you and you can stay home, you’re very, very safe,” Mr. Johnson, who’s also a registered nurse, told the News-Press.
He said Sansum Clinic has received a lot of positive feedback from doctors and the community with its recent telemedicine expansion.
During the last three weeks, more than 200 providers at the nonprofit have performed a total of more than 10,340 telehealth visits.
“We have yet to find a specialty where it can’t work some of the time,” Mr. Johnson said.
Sansum Clinic, Cottage Health, Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, Pacific Pride Foundation and Lompoc Health are among those who have embraced telemedicine during a time of social distancing.
They’re relying on applications that comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. That means they’re designed to protect patients’ privacy.
The use of telemedicine has grown since the novel coronavirus pandemic inspired a loosening of restrictions.
“It’s actually fascinating how quickly the federal and state governments moved to remove barriers that have been existing for years that prevented us from doing this,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in government move that quickly before.”
Dr. C. Alan Brown, the chief medical information officer at Cottage Health, told the News-Press he also noticed the removal of government barriers.
Dr. Brown said Cottage Health, which has hospitals and clinics in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Solvang, rolled out Cottage CareNow, its virtual care platform, to its employees last summer. The platform was expanded to inpatients and outpatients by the end of 2019.
Cottage Health saw just under 700 virtual encounters with patients in March, Dr. Brown said.
And the nonprofit this week offered free initial online diagnosis at Cottage CareNow for people who may have COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough or shortness of breath) or upper respiratory symptoms (sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion). Otherwise, the service costs $29 for an online interview or $39 for a video face-to-face-visit. No insurance is required.
“It’s really fortuitous that we launched this months ago,” Dr. Brown said. “Our team had the opportunity to gain experience with this platform before the COVID-19 pandemic hit us.”
Dr. Brown said telemedicine can be used in areas such as pediatrics, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension and cardiology. He said surgeons also can use it for pre- and post-operative chats with patients.
Dr. Brown said many opportunities exist for remote telemedicine visits, which allow patients to stay at home and avoid exposure to the coronavirus.
Elsewhere, Lompoc Health, which is part of a healthcare district with Lompoc Valley Medical Center, has announced Lompoc Health TeleVisits. The service covers primary care, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics, counseling, diabetes, bariatric, general surgery, general practice, dietitians and hematology-oncology.
“Lompoc Health TeleVisits allow patients to easily and securely manage ongoing, nonemergency medical concerns from the comfort of their home, in their car or at work — anywhere technology is available,” according to a news release.
Back on the South Coast, about 500 visits have been conducted through Zoom at Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, said Dr. Charles Fenzi, the nonprofit’s CEO and chief medical officer. (The clinics in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Isla Vista serve people who are at 200% of the federal poverty level or lower.)
“On the medical side, we are catching folks up on their periodic health assessments, women’s reproductive issues, lab result discussions, diabetes follow-up, substance use disorder follow up and behavioral health visits,” Dr. Fenzi told the News-Press. “For dental care, we are using Zoom to follow up on ongoing care, dental screenings.”
The younger generations are especially ready for telemedicine, he said.
“Young people were born with one of these things (smartphones) in their hands. It’s a no-brainer for them,” Dr. Fenzi said, but added that some older patients find telemedicine “takes some getting used to.”
Elsewhere, Pacific Pride Foundation, which serves the LGBTQ+ community, is using HIPAA-compliant platforms for teletherapy. That’s accompanied by more flexible policies in areas such as cancellations and fee accommodations.
“Our clients feel supported and are adapting to the changes very well, as is our counseling team,” the foundation staff told the News-Press in an email. “We are still able to serve active individual clients in both North and South County.”
At Sansum Clinic, Zoom is being used in areas such as psychiatric visits, discussions with patients about their X-rays or lab work, dermatology, optometry, urology and pediatrics, Mr. Johnson said.
“Cardiology is having a lot of consults” through telemedicine, he said. “They can reveal EKG studies with the patients and follow-up after patients have had visits in the hospital.”
He said the video chats work well for problems such as a rash, which you can show your doctor with your phone’s camera, or a limp. “We can watch you walk.”
He said Sansum Clinic providers can do telemedicine from their homes, which reduces their exposure to patients. “We’ve been actively working with doctors, patients and management to reduce schedules where safe and convert those visits to telemedicine where appropriate.”
Mr. Johnson said telemedicine is one way to reduce crowded waiting rooms, where Sansum Clinic has taped off every other chair to maintain social distancing. (Others have taken similar steps to keep patients at least 6 feet apart.)
Health providers predict telehealth will remain popular after the pandemic.
“I see the demand for telemedicine continuing to grow,” said Cottage Health’s Dr. Brown, “particularly as the technology continues to grow.”