By Angela Toda
Carrie (only her first name is used to protect her privacy), a busy 55-year-old wife and mother, is guilty of a common offense. She often puts off doctor visits and taking care of her health.
“It’s two hours out of my day, minimum, to go to the doctor’s office,” she said. “So, I normally don’t go in unless I have to.”
Now, Carrie, and busy people like her, are discovering telehealth, an alternative to an in-person appointment at the doctor, nutritionist, dentist, or therapist’s office during the COVID-19 pandemic. Talking to a provider by phone, or by video on a computer or smart device, means no travel time or long waits in the waiting room. While telehealth can’t replace every in-person appointment or the need for an emergency room visit, for someone like Carrie, who has a family history of diabetes, it can be just as good, if not better.
“There is a huge cost when patients put off care or ignore symptoms,” said Winnie Lee, assistant medical director at International Community Health Services (ICHS) Bellevue Clinic, the non-profit health center where Carrie sees her family practitioner and receives primary care. “They might develop preventable complications or illnesses. ICHS is making sure people don’t delay. We take every precaution so patients are safe when they come in our clinics—or they can use telehealth. We help them decide which is best.”
According to Forrester Research, telehealth visits are projected to climb to one billion nationally by the end of 2020.
Lee says that telehealth is a great option for someone who needs to monitor an ongoing condition, ensure that a treatment plan or medication is on track, or decide if any new health signs need attention.
“It’s useful as a ‘check in’ with patients on symptoms, lifestyle questions or counseling,” she said. Lee recommends a video visit over a phone visit for patients who need her to see their specific medications or symptoms. She also says video visits provide a better setting for patients who need a parent or caregiver to accompany them.
The process, Carrie reports, is surprisingly easy.
“If you can send and receive text messages, you won’t have any problems with a telehealth visit.”
The first step was a quick telephone call with a medical assistant.
“It was like I was being checked in,” said Carrie. “You go through some forms over the phone and then the doctor will call you.”
Carrie said she felt more relaxed over the phone, versus in person.
“I felt more empowered,” she said. “Normally, I get nervous at the doctor’s office, but she was patient and kept asking what I wanted to talk about. She was happy I brought up my concerns. I felt like we were really working as a team.”
The visit included a mental health screening, a standard practice for every ICHS primary care visit and one that is particularly relevant as people face additional stressors with COVID-19.
Ana Short, a behavioral health specialist, who sees patients and students at the ICHS clinic at the Seattle World School and in Shoreline, says telehealth allows her to address a variety of needs. Especially, she said, as students are being hit from afar by multiple issues and are unable to come into the school on-site health clinic. Both students and families are facing new circumstances and challenges.
“A lot of parents are very anxious,” she said. “They don’t want their kids to go out at all, so young people are coping with that loss of freedom. Sometimes they need resources. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to.”
Short points out that some people need ongoing therapy, while others just need one-time help. Telehealth allows her to be immediately accessible without shame or stigma, while easing any concerns patients might have about maintaining social distance.
“Knowing they can get help is huge,” she said. “Patients say knowing that they have a team of professionals available is comforting.”
Both Short and Lee say that telehealth has been popular with patients.
“It is definitely a patient choice and they like knowing they have choices,” said Lee. “Even after the relaxation of distancing rules, patients are finding phone and video visits an attractive option.”
Carrie quickly summed up the advantages.
“My appointment took just 30 minutes,” she said. “I’m sold!”
More information about telehealth and ICHS can be found at ichs.com.