Telehealth Technology: A New Way to See Patients During the Coronavirus Pandemic

With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, doctors offices, clinics, and hospitals have been asking patients to stay home unless they have a medical emergency. Elective surgeries and dental procedures are being cancelled, as well. However, if this pandemic lasts for weeks and months, as is being predicted now, can we really go that long without seeing our health professionals?

There may be an answer: telemedicine and telehealth technology.

The American Academy of Family Physicians defines telemedicine as “the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to deliver care to a patient at a distant site.”

AAFP defines telehealth as “electronic and telecommunications technologies and services used to provide care and services at-a-distance.”

Both technologies are being utilized right now, as millions of Americans are practicing social distancing and self-isolation, in order to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The most common method being rolled out now includes video chatting, usually over a computer or smart phone, between patients and health professionals. The best comparison to this method is Skype’s popular video calling feature, though health professionals usually use companies that provide more secure connections.

The Trump administration has put their support behind using such measures at this time. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained on March 17th what actions the federal government is taking to support telehealth services.

On Tuesday, the Trump Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced unprecedented steps to expand Americans’ access to telehealth services during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Centers for Medicare & and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded Medicare coverage for telehealth visits, the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced it will waive potential HIPAA penalties for good faith use of telehealth during the emergency, and the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) provided flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive beneficiary cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal healthcare programs.

The term “telehealth services” covers a wide variety of services. One area of expertise covered by this term is mental health services, which, it can be argued, are very much needed in this time of distancing, isolation, and quarantine.

We recently learned of multiple mental health practices in Grant County that are adopting this new way of checking in and holding therapy sessions with their clientele. Friends Counseling Center, including their office at the River Church in Marion, has already adopted and started using telehealth technology.

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We spoke with Tonya Scalf, the director of Friends Counseling Center in Marion, to ask her about their new way of seeing clients. Here is our interview in full:

Is there a specific company you are using to conduct telehealth sessions with your clients? Which program is it? 

We are utilizing ZOOM for Telehealth

Have you ever used telehealth in the past?

This is a completely new territory for us, as we are a face to face provide, however with the current epidemic our country is facing we became exploring options early last week.  It was becoming clear that our normal day to day functioning was going to change and in order for us to be able to continue to provide counseling services to our clients, we needed to find a solution that would be user friendly and be an alternative option for our clients. 

Is this way of seeing your clients something you think will work in the long-term? Would you be willing to use this method in the future, even after the pandemic ends?  

This is unfortunate is a difficult question to answer at this time, the way our system has been set up in the past is either one or the other, an office/face to face setting or telehealth setting but not both.  It is hard to predict how this current situation will impact the future of mental health systems on small counseling centers. My opinion is there is value in a face to face session, it is therapeutic to sit with your therapist and be heard and seen.  However, for those who have difficulties getting to and from a counselor’s office or have high anxiety, telehealth is a valuable option as well. 

What are the pros and cons of using such technology? 

Pros – convenience, clients don’t even have to leave home or work just connect on their computer, phone or tablet.   Cons – Limit social interaction, challenges with therapeutic engagement, including limitations in play therapy and art therapy. 

How do you plan on communicating with clients who have neither the devices nor internet connection to participate in the telehealth sessions? 

Our staff has worked tirelessly to communicate through letters, emails, phone calls, and social media in order to make sure each client is aware of the changes.  It has been mixed reviews as about half our clients would rather wait until they can be seen face to face, while some are choosing to continue with the telehealth option.    For those clients who don’t have good internet options at their homes, they are encouraged to utilized free options including our WIFI from their car in our parking lot. 

Has the government played any role in helping you develop this way of working with your clients?  

It is because of the government that we have been able to make these changes. 

Will insurance companies cover sessions conducted this way? 

The insurance companies are having to make changes as well based on the government sanctions.

Has this method of communicating with clients taken any kind of financial toll on the counseling center? How is it being funded? Is it sustainable in the long-term? 

We won’t know the full impact of the financial toll for a few weeks possibly even a few months, however, we predict that we will take a toll on us financially.  The long-term impact is yet to be known. 

How are your counselors feeling about this type of communication?  

Our counselors are grateful to be able to continue to be able to provide services, where some small counseling centers are closing down.   They see this as an opportunity to be able to continue to provide support and hope to their clients during this time of unknown and unrest.  

Have you received any feedback from your clients? What do they think of this method of communication? 

We have received mixed feedback, some of the clients would rather wait until we can move back to face to face sessions whether other clients are welcoming this change.  I personally had a client share, “this isn’t as bad as I had expected although I prefer face to face” I would suggest for a client to at least give it a try, as it is a way to continue treatment without interruption and you never know you may find it to be very helpful especially during this period of so many unknowns.

Do you think this pandemic will affect how we connect with our health professionals in the future? Or do you think this is simply a short-term solution?   

Every pandemic, no matter how big or how small it has left its mark,  it is unclear or it is too early to know the magnitude of COVID 19 impact.  All we can do is hope and pray, that we allow this to have a positive change on all of us, letting the best of humanity be our driving focus doing what we can to show kindness in the midst of uncertainty. 

We at Channel 27 News and Entertainment believe that mental health is crucial to our overall well-being, especially in this time of increased stress, fear, anxiety, and depression.

If you are already a client of any local counseling centers, we urge you to contact their respective offices for more information on how they are approaching counseling services during the pandemic.

If you are in danger and/or need immediate help, please either go to your nearest emergency room or call one of the following hotlines:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255


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