The idea of telehealth feels impersonal, like a web of computers and wires that has little to do with treating patients, but it can make a big difference in how people experience their care.
Take Sarah Rettew, a newly expectant mother who is carrying twins. Due to her age, Sarah knew her pregnancy was high-risk, made doubly anxious by her cargo. That means she’ll have to navigate a complex web of providers and prenatal services for the next few months.
Sarah’s husband Bobby, a digital strategist for Gray Digital Group which frequently partners with SCHA, recently told us how telehealth made a positive impact on their experience through the healthcare maze. It started with their first pregnancy visit with Dr. Henry Hearn, Sarah’s OB/GYN at AnMed Health.
“At our first meeting with him, he immediately wanted us to meet with a Maternal Fetal Medicine (MFM) physician which is offered by a GHS [Greenville Health System] office right next door,” he recalls. “[Dr. Hearn] wanted to make sure everything was going okay with the twins and to be intentionally watching for anything out of the ordinary.”
In the past, that also meant a genetics consult which wasn’t available in Anderson, SC. The closest provider was Greenwood Genetic Center’s Greenville office, nearly an hour down I-85.
“You can imagine that, if the patient is upset and crying after getting sad news, getting in the car to drive for an hour to talk to somebody about it is very stressful,” points out Elizabeth Francisco, a Prenatal Genetic Counselor at the Center. “A lot of patients ended up not getting any counseling at all because they didn't have the means to come here or were too upset to come up and talk to us.”
With the rise of telehealth, though, the Center saw an opportunity to make the lives of patients like the Rettews a little easier. Their fetal medicine specialists were already using Skype to see patients in their Greenwood office, where an ultrasound tech would be in person but the physicians would provide care remotely, so they decided to use the same technique for their genetics patients in Anderson. Within a few weeks of hitting upon this solution in the fall of 2015, the technology was up and running.
While there weren’t many logistical difficulties with the new system—Francisco says the main struggle was how they used some in-house materials and hand motions to explain things that can be a little difficult to translate over video—the main concern was supporting a patient emotionally while delivering difficult news.
“I was worried about being able to emotionally support the patient, because of course you can give them that information, but you can't hold their hand or pass them a tissue or anything like that,” she admits. “But you can still use the tone of your voice and your mannerisms to indicate how you're feeling. That’s actually been better than I thought it would be. Patients get comfortable and almost forget that they are on Skype, particularly for sessions that are not emotionally charged.”
Plus, using telehealth is far superior to simply talking over the phone. “You really do lose something there because you can't see the patient's facial expression, you can't see if they're wringing their hands, if they're crying,” Francisco explains. “And it's hard to get them engaged—they don't feel as connected to you, so they aren't as likely to ask you questions and things like that.”
The new service has received uniformly positive reviews from folks like Bobby and Sarah Rettew.
“That would have been a third appointment with a group in a different city,” Bobby says. “Instead, they set up a Skype session with [the Center]. This session was educational and provided interesting insight for us regarding whether to have an invasive genetic test. We were able to meet with her OB at AnMed, then go literally next door to the Maternal Fetal Medicine from GHS, [and then] finally use telemedicine to talk with genetic counselors.”
Francisco says they were initially worried that people wouldn’t embrace the service, but it took off in a hurry. The Center now consistently sees 5-10 patients a week through their telehealth service.
“Patients really appreciate having that option to not drive to Greenville, and I think our local OB referral source in Anderson has appreciated it [too],” she concludes. “I think patients really appreciate being able to sit down and talk with somebody on the spot.”