Topeka hospitals turn to tele-health during COVID-19 pandemic

Published: Apr. 3, 2020 at 11:09 PM CDT
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When Todd Blackinton headed to his doctor's appointment this week, he didn't need to leave his home - just fire up his computer.

"They took me into an exam room, and I sat there and waited," Blackinton said. "We just talked openly for 10, 15 minutes about my history and sleeping and all that kind of stuff."

Blackinton is among hundreds of patients now completing their visits virtually.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, University of Kansas Health System-Saint Francis wants to reserve the hospital for only the sickest patients, and keep as many people as possible out of the clinics - and away from risks.

"We want to be there for them in the safest way possible, and right now that might mean we interact with them at their home," explained Dr. Jen McAllaster, a general and bariatric surgeon with St. Francis.

St. Francis is using a program called WebEx to handle as many patient visits as possible through a video link. The appointments might include things like consultations, routine follow-ups, or general questions.

"It's amazing what you can do through tele-medicine to make sure the patient appears comfortable," Dr. McAllaster said. "If there are incisions or wounds, we can look at those with the benefit of the video equipment. Sometimes it really helps us to at least be able to triage or see those patients, see how they're doing, then decide this may actually be something that I need you to come into the office to see you."

Patients get their own secure link for appointments, and doctors conduct the visits from private exam rooms.

From being a rarity before the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Francis has done more than 350 tele-health visits this week. Stormont Vail adopted a similar practice, logging more than 2200 throughout its system the past seven days.

"We don't want this to be something where it's a concern to the patients that their doctors aren't there for them, that they can't get the care. Absolutely, we can care for our patients," Dr. McAllaster said.

Blackinton is glad he had an option to get care, and get on the way to treatment - without having to wait for the pandemic to pass.

"It was a good and personal attention given to my health," he said.

Patients are encouraged to call their doctors' offices if they need help. Staff will determine if a tele-medicine or in-person visit is most appropriate.