North Bay health care providers tap telemedicine to screen for coronavirus, serve spike in patients
With a deadly virus rampant in the community, Sonoma County health clinics, hospitals and physicians are turning to telephone and video communication to treat patients while guarding the safety of their facilities, staff and other patients.
Telemedicine, also known as telehealth, dates back to the 1960s as a way to connect patients to connect with caregivers. It is getting a boost during the coronavirus outbreak that has infected nine people in the county and brought much of life in the Bay Area to a standstill.
Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente, as well as community health centers based in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and the west county, are ramping up telephone and video connections linking thousands of patients to their health care providers.
The St. Joseph Health Medical Group, affiliated with Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, is relying on the internet to enable patients to get help without risk of exposure at a time when residents have been ordered to stay home, with schools and many businesses shuttered.
The federal government has, for the first time, extended telemedicine to all Medicare beneficiaries regardless of their circumstances.
“We are in a unique time in which inexpensive, off-the-shelf video technology allows us to provide meaningful and clinically relevant care to even our most vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Jason Cunningham, CEO of West County Health Centers, which serves 15,000 patients.
“Most importantly, it allows us to provide ongoing care that is safe for our patients and staff in this critical time for our community,” he said.
Sutter Health's Walk-In Care clinics in Santa Rosa and 25 other communities around the Bay Area and Central Valley will all, by week's end, have activated systems allowing Sutter patients to make a “video visit” from home as a first step toward treatment.
“This means you avoid being exposed to the cold and flu, and, if you are sick, you won't expose others,” said Carolin Delker, Sutter's Walk-In Care clinical director.
If the clinician, via an online visit, determines the patient's symptoms are “mild to moderate,” testing for coronavirus is usually unnecessary and the patient is given instructions for self-care at home.
Patients who need a “higher level of care” will be directed, as needed, to testing at a Sutter hospital or another facility within the system, Delker said.
Patients who show up at a Sutter clinic will see signs on the door advising them to make a video visit though a Sutter app called My Health Online.
In addition to safety, the video system “will help relieve some of the pressure on our front-line clinicians if there is a surge in patients,” Delker said.
Santa Rosa Community Health, responding to the reports of community transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is screening all patients over the phone or outside the clinic for symptoms or COVID-19 risk factors. Those who may be infected are directed to testing within the network of clinics.
The organization, which served 42,000 patients last year at eight sites around Santa Rosa, has also established a team of medical staffers to make telephone visits to patients who have appointments for noncritical care.
The idea is to “keep people at home” whenever it is appropriate and identify those with respiratory symptoms that could be evidence of the viral infection that has afflicted more than 1,000 people in California, said Annemarie Brown, the organization's communications and grants development director.
West County Health Centers, with seven facilities in Sebastopol, Forestville, Occidental and Guerneville, is calling patients with appointments to give them the option of a telephone or video visit with a clinician, while personal office visits are available by appointment on a limited basis, said Cunningham, the CEO.
“A portion of what we do in primary care can be handled remotely in this situation,” he said, noting that diabetic patients, who are at high risk for coronavirus infection, are better off staying at home.
“We want to align our care delivery with what's necessary to fight this disease,” Cunningham said.
Patients who arrive for an appointment are checked for evidence of a fever, cough or shortness of breath and people with those symptoms are asked to wear a mask and evaluated outside or in their car, said Dr. Rain Moore, chief medical officer.
Health care providers wear N95 respirators for high-risk encounters, but Moore said they are not recommended for the public “and frankly are discouraged as there is a need for these (masks) among the medical community,” she said.