HELENA — In the wake of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, virtual “tele-medicine” visits between physicians and patients are surging in parts of Montana, health-care providers say.
At Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, tele-health visits have “increased dramatically” in the past several weeks, says Mike Spinelli, an internal medicine physician at Bozeman Health.
“Almost everybody who is in family medicine at Bozeman Health is trying to get up-and-running on one tele-health platform or another,” he told MTN News.
And in Helena, St. Peter’s Health and health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana expanded a tele-health pilot program that enables physicians to not only visit with patients, but also read their vital signs, such as breathing and heartbeat.
Todd Wampler, a family-medicine physician and chief of staff at St. Peter’s Health, told MTN News that 1,400 virtual visits had been conducted through last week.
The program is using 200 devices that patients use to read their vital signs at home, which are transmitted electronically to the physician while me talks to the patient. The devices have been distributed to nursing homes, assisted-living centers and various patients and patient centers in the Helena area.
“We just wanted to reach out and make it a community-wide solution,” Wampler says. “It’s just crucial to prevent (at-risk patients) from coming into the office. We can conduct that more full clinical evaluation and keep them where they are going to be best-protected.”
Blue Cross said it has earmarked $100,000 from a coronavirus grant fund to help other hospitals and clinics in Montana purchase tele-medicine technology.
Blue Cross and St. Peter’s Health had been planning to launch a pilot program last week just with Helena Blue Cross employees, who would use the devices at company headquarters.
But with the need for “social distancing” to fight the coronavirus outbreak, the organizations decided to launch the program throughout the community, says David Lechner, chief medical officer for Blue Cross.
“The pandemic created immediate need for organizations to look at (stopping) people from coming into the office for routine visits, and moving them to other technology, to see the patient,” he says.
Bob Janicek, Blue Cross’s vice president of provider network operations, says the pilot program originally had been conceived because consumer use of tele-medicine had been “much slower than anticipated.”
Spinelli also says tele-health options had been available at Bozeman Health for past year or so, with less-than-expected use.
But the coronavirus outbreak has essentially forced patients to user tele-health, if they want to see their physician, providers say.
“It’s not like everybody’s every-day (health) problems disappear just because there’s a pandemic,” Spinelli says.
Spinelli has been using Zoom, a tele-conferencing program that allows patients to see and talk to their physician on their laptop, desktop computer or smart phone. He says he now talks to most of his patients virtually, and determines if they need to come to the hospital or office to see someone in-person.
Wampler, of St. Peter’s, says the current crisis may be an opportunity for tele-health to gain wider acceptance and improve access to health care for patients, in both rural and urban areas.
“The goals are to reduce the barriers of time and space for our patients to get the care that they need,” he said. “I think it can be the silver lining in this whole process.”