Telehealth services — healthcare conducted over a phone or computer screen — are nothing new. But when the pandemic kept people at home, telehealth expanded and created a new way for many to take care of their health needs.

Locally, healthcare saw an uptick in the use of telehealth services at the height of the pandemic. Even coming into a post-pandemic world, they see telehealth as here to stay.

A new experience

Dennis Skelton has lived in the area year-round for about three years.

Once he became a resident, Skelton chose a family physician on the recommendation of a friend. When COVID-19 began, his doctor moved services to telehealth.

“Once COVID hit it was the doctor’s office that actually initiated doing telehealth,” he said. “They still like me to come in once a year for my annual, but in between if anything comes up or they need to talk to me about something we’ve been doing telehealth.”

Doing a health visit over video was a new experience for Skelton. There were minor glitches at first, but Skelton said additional visits have been smooth.

“The upside is it saves a trip to the office, reduces their traffic flow, and with COVID there’s less exposure to other people,” he said. “I think that’s the big advantage.”

Skelton plans to continue using telehealth post-COVID as often as possible. He advised others who were considering telehealth to be prepared beforehand with their information.

“I think there’s a little ways to go yet to perfect it but I think it will come with time. The more experience the patient and doctor has with telehealth is critical,” he said. “I think the real thing is just being prepared for a call, having it all written down, because if there’s information the doctor is asking for and you can’t give it to them it reduces the effectiveness of the call.”

Numbers

The COVID-19 Telehealth Impact Survey was a national study conducted in 2020-21 to look at the expansion of telehealth as a result of COVID-19. Led by the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, which includes major health organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, the survey included 1,600 physicians and more than 2,000 patients.

Among their findings was an increase in telehealth visits after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Before March 11, 2020, about 93 percent, of respondents said they were averaging zero to five telehealth visits a week. After that date, just under 40 percent said they were averaging more than 20 a week.

Northwest Medical

At Northwest Medical Center, which opened an 18-bed hospital in Sahuarita in November, there was a “huge uptick” in telehealthcare visits during the height of the pandemic, particularly in its clinics.

Marketing Director Veronica Apodaca said prior to COVID, there were a couple hundred telehealth appointments a month in their clinics. At the peak last year, that jumped to nearly 2,000 patients a month through telehealth.

CEO Kevin Stockton said it’s hard to quantify, but anecdotally they know a number of patients utilizing telehealth over the pandemic were new to the process.

“Through stories I’ve heard a lot of people were new to telehealth because we had to have people help them get set up through telehealth,” he said. “It’s simple but we did have to help people get access. I think it was new for a lot, but not all.”

Stockton said the video healthcare visits are similar to a Facetime talk with friends. A patient sets up a time to speak with a provider remotely through their smartphone or other device.

“The provider will ask questions and they have different ways to do a physical exam on telehealth,” he said. “It’s very one-on-one. It’s a good way to have a visit and it can be a thorough visit as well.”

For patients in the hospital, a nurse will roll in what they call a WOW, or workstation on wheels, to the patient’s bed for a virtual exam with a provider or specialist. Northwest Medical Center Sahuarita hospital has one WOW.

The ability to video in specialists who may be hard to hire and bring into the area is a big benefit of telehealth to Northwest.

“What we’re seeing nationally with telehealth is more and more access to specialists,” Stockton said. “With telehealth, we can keep patients in the community. If we can’t find a specialty physician to relocate to Pima County for Sahuarita/Green Valley we could very well provide access to them in the hospital and clinic via telehealth. We could really provide 95% of the care one could get this way.”

Northwest offers telehealth options for many of their services, from neurology to primary care. Stockton also said they have the ability to convert almost any patient’s in-person visit to telehealth.

Though Northwest has utilized telehealth for several years, the pandemic grew its usages and popularity.

“Patients just didn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity before,” he said. “COVID changed how telehealth works in clinics and identified ways we could use telehealth more. Patients in communities have access that may not be available currently.”

Stockton said telehealth visits on the clinic side have decreased as more people are feeling comfortable coming back into doctor’s offices, but they will continue to use the technology tool.

Apodaca said telehealth helps them meet their mission.

“It goes along with some of our strategies to keep patients close to home, keeping them closer to where they live,” she said. “That’s part of why we opened the hospital in Sahuarita, really being able to keep patients as close to home, make it as easy as possible and increase access to healthcare.”

Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital

Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital had also been using telehealth prior to the pandemic, and much more since COVID-19, according to Andrew Spencer, director of operations.

“It’s always been an option out there that existed in the past for people who couldn’t make it, or perhaps lived remotely and needed to travel long distances,” he said. “What we’ve seen in the past year is this is now a safe method for people who do not want to leave their homes based on the pandemic. We can have discussions with them and get them triaged safely from their own home.”

The hospital was averaging about one telehealth visit a month prior to the pandemic. It increased to about eight a day at the start of the pandemic, mostly for primary care.

The hospital also utilizes telehealth to bring specialists not available in the area.

Santa Cruz sees a benefit in teletherapy and will continue it moving forward.

“{span}{span}Anything that benefits the patient, benefits us,” Spencer said. “It was a thing of connivence in the past and now it’s an added extra measure of safety and precaution during the pandemic.”{/span}{/span}

Teletherapy

Therapists have also moved their services to digital visits as a result of the pandemic.

Psychologist Lutissua Ballard runs Shefa Life Counseling, a local practice focused on adolescents; she also sees adults.

Prior to COVID-19, everything she did was in-person. Now, everything she offers is done through teletherapy.

“Now my practice has gone completely virtually which has been a big shift for me,” she said. “Prior to the pandemic, I really was pretty skeptical about teletherapy. I was concerned about its effectiveness but this has changed my viewpoint. It is very effective.”

Ballard said there’s big pros with teletherapy. It offers convenience, is a good platform for group sessions and offers a feeling of safety for some, like younger children.

“With young kids, one thing I really like is they are able to bring me into their world, into the session where they can get toys or show me drawings they did over the week,” she said. “I get to see their world.”

She has also seen an increase in the number of people attending her women’s empowerment group and teens enrolling in online sessions.

“We did Let’s Talk groups at the high school and enrollment was pretty low. But online enrollment has been phenomenal,” she said. “It’s safer. We were going into schools before and I think it might have carried a bit of stigma. With teletherapy, they are in their own home, safe and private.”

Ballard said she has her client base and enrollment rise with teletherapy.

“I’ve been able to reach more people. Some people have never been able to drive to see me,” she said. “I’ve seen people from other counties and one of the things that helped with the shift from in-person to online is a lot of insurance companies waived fees for virtual visits. That opened the door for people who may have been on the fence or worried about their finances.”

Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2454 earlier this month to expand telehealth services and access in the state. The bill ensures doctors receive equal compensation from insurance companies for telemedicine services, expands previous legislation that required health insurance providers to expand their telehealth coverage and allows out-of-state health care providers to provide telemedicine in Arizona.

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728