In September 2019, Catholic Family Center‘s staff psychiatrists began utilizing a new telehealth system that allowed them to virtually visit with clients in some of the agency’s programs. At the time, they didn’t realize just how valuable these telemedicine capabilities would become when the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside-down just a few short months later.
“The work we did initially to get everything set up gave us a head start, because we were able to take all that knowledge and just move quickly,” remarked Kristie Elias, Catholic Family Center’s vice president of behavioral health services.
The agency had initially pursued telehealth as a way to allow psychologists to spend more time working with clients at Catholic Family Center’s three residential drug-treatment centers and less time driving between those centers, which are located within the City of Rochester and in Newark, Wayne County. By spring 2020, it became evident that telehealth was also a way to continue to provide care for the agency’s clients without putting either those clients or their providers at risk of exposure to COVID-19, Elias said.
Other health-care providers throughout the region also have turned to telemedicine as a way to serve patients while protecting both patients and staff, and some have devised strategies to make patients feel comfortable visiting health-care facilities when in-person visits are necessary.
Before launching their telehealth system in the fall of 2019, Catholic Family Center’s staff spent a great deal of time developing policies and procedures designed to ensure the safety of staff and clients alike. The physical and technical aspects of setting up the system also took some time, Elias said.
Initially, these telehealth visits were limited to clients in Catholic Family Center’s residential drug-treatment centers, but once the pandemic took hold in March, the agency was able to expand the telemedicine program to all of its behavioral health programs, Elias said.
“We had started this process (of expanding telehealth capabilities), but we were looking at it taking years, and it took us literally three business days to turn on a dime once the state said we could,” Elias said. “We found out on a Friday evening, and it was up and running by Wednesday evening. We went from a three-year window to a three-day window. It was incredible.”
Conducting visits virtually does have some drawbacks, Elias noted. Meeting a client for the first time via a screen can be challenging for the client and the provider alike, and it can be harder for a clinician to pick up on a client’s nonverbal cues when they are not in the same room together, she said. On the other hand, such virtual visits can be a game-changer for parents dealing with child-care challenges, who otherwise might not be able to keep their appointments, she said. Telehealth also can be beneficial for those who don’t have reliable transportation and are either uncomfortable with or unable to access public transportation, Elias said.
Some pediatricians also have used telemedicine to visit with young patients and their parents virtually, according to Rochester pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Murray, who also is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Some doctors would conduct the majority of a well-child visit virtually, so their young patients and their parents only needed to come into the actual office long enough to receive their vaccines, Murray said. Many practices, even those that previously had not utilized telemedicine, were able to quickly come online and provide care for children without requiring them to visit the office.
At many practices, patients are now asked to call the office when they arrive in the parking lot, and the office staff will tell them when they may come into the office, thus reducing the amount of time patients spend in waiting rooms, noted Dr. Carlos Swanger, a Rochester physician. Instead of checking out at the front desk, many practices now are having patients check out via phone, either from the exam room or from home later, he said. And Swanger said he’s began taking actions, such as disinfecting his stethoscope in between patients, that he plans to continue even after the pandemic has passed.