Telehealth hubs bridge the gap for patients without access to computers, broadband and/or skills to access online help

MinnPost reports…

When COVID-19 hit Minnesota this spring, most health care providers made the shift to telehealth as a way to safely see their patients without risk of spreading the virus. While this approach works for people who are well connected through smartphones, computers and tablets, Joncas said a large number of her clients at the St. Paul Opportunity Center (and its sister program in Minneapolis) live on the edge of the virtual world, making accessing health care via telehealth nearly impossible.

Online is convenient and a life saver for folks who are connected but it’s leaving many people falling farther behind, especially anyone experiencing poverty or homelessness…

“When we’d say, ‘I see you missed your appointment. Let’s get another appointment set up on your phone,’ it usually didn’t work,” she said. “Many of these guys didn’t have phones to begin with. Or, if they did have a phone, their payments were erratic so their service was off and on. Or they had limited data and didn’t want to use it up.”

And when you’re living arrangements are not ideal privacy can be an issue…

And clients who did have a working smartphone weren’t all that keen on giving telehealth a try, Joncas said. Shelter living is famous for its lack of privacy, so virtually visiting with a health care provider in spaces already occupied by other people felt unappealing.

Then M Health Fairview offered an option…

The email went on to explain that M Health Fairview had already set up telehealth hubs — or private rooms outfitted with high-definition computers where patients could safely have remote visits with mental- and chemical-health counselors — at M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital just a few blocks away. Would Catholic Charities be interested in setting up a similar hub at the Opportunity Center?

“From there it was pretty easy,” Joncas said. The St. Paul Opportunity Center actually had a number of private consultation rooms that usually are used by case managers during client meetings. The rooms were too small for two people to practice social distancing, so they’d been standing empty for months.

SO they set up space…

When M Health Fairview set up the first telehealth hubs at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the idea was to mimic the usual patient experience as much as possible. The two hub rooms are located near the hospital’s outpatient mental health and addiction clinic, where many patients were used to seeing their provider pre-pandemic.

Staff at the hospital helps walk patients through the virtual visits, showing them to the hub rooms, explaining how to use the equipment and connecting them with their doctors. Levine added that there are plans to expand hub services to other M Health Fairview clinics, where a “skeleton staff” outfitted in PPE would check in patients, and help get their appointment started. “For the most part the process is extremely simple,” he said. “Hopefully for most people it doesn’t feel too far off from an in-person visit.”

Scheduling a telehealth hub appointment should be as easy as scheduling an in-person appointment. “When people call in to schedule an appointment with a provider, our central intake team asks them questions about if they can use a phone or a computer for a video visit or if they have a private place to be able to talk,” Levine said. “If they aren’t able to do any of those they are offered to go to the telehub location.”

They are looking to grow the number of hubs…

Levine said that M Health Fairview is making tentative plans to expand the telehealth hubs to other locations close to communities that could benefit the most from using them.

“The hope would be that we could start putting some of the hubs in strategic locations for people who don’t have a safe place to talk or the equipment they need to handle a call. Because many people have limited transportation, these places will be in areas that they can get to easily with public transportation.”

It would be nice to see some of these in rural areas. I have seen computer kiosks or labs in mini-buses, laundromats, manufactured home communities, campgrounds and more. They need is at least as great in rural areas. There are starting points. It would be great to see!

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Healthcare, MN and tagged by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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