The coronavirus outbreak is redefining the value of telehealth in delivering medical services to patients. The efficiency of this type of system could end up reshaping the future of healthcare.
“We can provide services that help keep our students, faculty and staff out of the urgent care clinics and emergency rooms where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is potentially higher,” said Dr. Judi Voelz, medical director for New Mexico State University’s Health and Wellness Center.
NMSU is already on board. They started March 23, providing services to students, faculty and staff using the telehealth model for access to medical and counseling providers, laboratory and pharmacy services.
Before they could start, the staff at Aggie Health needed to set up a version of Zoom teleconferencing service that is compliant with the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA).
“We were able to get training for our staff in best practices for telehealth and we started calling clients last week to convert to the telehealth version for all counseling,” said Lori McKee, executive director of the Aggie Health and Wellness Center. “Most of our counseling staff already had web cameras as, that is a standard in their profession. We gradually integrated the medical staff into it and now all patients are evaluated through telehealth.”
The call to the Aggie Health Center is the first step. A triage nurse determines if a face-to-face meeting via Zoom is needed. The doctor or nurse sends an email to the patient for a Zoom meeting appointment. McKee said the system is really not that different from when patients would call to make a same day appointment at the center. It’s just a telehealth appointment instead. Students, faculty or staff connect with a medical provider via cell phone, computer, laptop, or tablet and the assessment happens through a HIPAA protected Internet link.
“The patient or counseling client can see the practitioner and the practitioner can see the patient, take the history, and can do limited exams and recommend treatment if necessary,” Voelz said. “In the course of medical training, we are taught that a large amount of the diagnosis can be made by taking a good history from the patient. Telehealth medicine allows us to extensively talk with the patient.”
If it is necessary, the NMSU student or employee has an appointment scheduled with a medical provider and they go into the health center. If they need lab work or a prescription filled, it works the same way. It begins with a phone call, the telehealth meeting is set up and then patients may come in for lab testing and pick up prescriptions. The center can also call in prescriptions for NMSU students to pharmacies in other cities where they may have returned to shelter in place.
“I’ve called-in prescriptions to Tucson, Phoenix and Houston for our NMSU student patients,” Voelz said. “All they have to do is call.”
The health center is always screening for COVID-19, so if patients have symptoms, they receive high priority at Aggie Health with medical intervention and access for coronavirus testing.
The telehealth system protects both patients and healthcare professionals.
“Healthcare workers don’t need to examine a person who may be infected with coronavirus and may not be showing symptoms yet,” Voelz said. “Telehealth limits face-to-face contact, protecting all our employees from a possible exposure to coronavirus.
“Being able to provide telehealth at the Aggie Health and Wellness Center keeps us connected to the NMSU community we are here to serve,” Voelz said. “It gives them a way to call, get answers to questions and get services like lab and pharmacy, so they can stay home and be safe and well.”
NMSU employees pay $20 for the telehealth visit while students’ visit is included in the health fee they pay by semester.
NMSU students, faculty and staff are encouraged to call Aggie Health at 575-646-1512. The center is receiving calls to make appointments for telehealth screenings from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 4:30 pm. Monday through Friday. For information on COVID-19, please visit the website at: https://wellness.nmsu.edu/coronavirus-2019-ncov/