Consumer interest in telehealth is steadily growing. But, because of reimbursement concerns, many physicians are choosing to test the waters slowly with telemedicine, one use case at a time, rather than adopting the technology as a full-scale solution. The true value of telehealth doesn’t always reveal itself when we’re testing the waters but rather, when the waters test us. Literally.
Natural disasters wreak havoc on everyone in their path, not only because of the immediate dangers they possess, but because of the healthcare access issues they trigger. A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that one-third of Hurricane Maria attributed deaths in Puerto Rico were due to delayed or interrupted healthcare services. Fewer deaths, roughly one in 10, were caused by the Category 4 hurricane itself.
The response among telehealth providers in the wake of the recent Hurricane Florence, which impacted thousands in North and South Carolina was overwhelmingly positive. Thousands of patients benefitted from virtual care services rendered. Even better, the experience offered new insight into best practices around telehealth that physicians can employ in time of crisis before, during, and after a natural disaster. Not all disasters can be planned for, but physicians can still plan for them.
Before the storm
When hurricanes strike, power outages and flash flooding renders patients homebound and without means to travel safely to a physician’s office, urgent care center, or hospital. The only advantage is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can give us advance notice for a hurricane, affording us time to prepare.
One of the earliest pioneers of telehealth, Nemours Children’s Health System, with locations in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida, learned that early intervention can benefit families. In 2017, the organization offered free access to its CareConnect direct-to-consumer telehealth app to patients impacted by Hurricane Irma. The app was available through any mobile device, and telehealth expedited necessary care for patients who needed immediate help.
In analyzing its response to 2017 events, the organization realized that it could do more to help patients prepare in the days before a hurricane hits. Namely, to help them to access board-certified physicians who could issue refills for much-needed prescription drugs or pursue other needed preventive strategies.
Physicians should encourage patients to plan ahead and help them to fill prescriptions early in the event that transportation issues will arise. Physicians should also encourage patients to download and familiarize themselves with a telehealth app in advance. Likewise, physicians who are unfamiliar with using a telehealth app should take time to practice, so they can move through visits more efficiently when disaster strikes.
During the storm
While meteorologists can track the hurricane’s location and intensity, no one can be certain of its impact. Even if physicians have done their best to prepare patients by urging them to seek care or fill prescriptions in advance, charge their phones, and stay vigilant, unexpected problems can arise anytime.