Telehealth in the SCV: the experts discuss virtual appointments

The Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital urgent care team uses a telehealth system more frequently now, which helps many with the anxiety they’re feeling about hospital visits at the moment. Courtesy Bryant Wieczorek
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The novel coronavirus outbreak has affected, in one way or the other, just about everything in daily lives, including visits to the doctor. As developments in the COVID-19 crisis continue, more patients are turning to telehealth. 

Some may need a prescription refill, others raise questions about a skin rash, and of course there are those who might be wondering if the symptoms they’re presenting are coronavirus-related. There’s a little bit of everything in telehealth, much like an in-person visit, local health experts said. 

But in the midst of a pandemic that has no clear end sign, there’s high anxiety about visiting a clinic or hospital. 

“If people are scared to go to the grocery store, you can just imagine the fear they may have to go into a health care setting,” said Dr. Brian Wilbur, chief medical officer of Exer Urgent Care, which has locations in the Santa Clarita Valley. 

While doctors in and around the Santa Clarita Valley remind the public that it is safe to stop by for an in-person visit, especially in an emergency, virtual visits are encouraged as medical professionals continue the fight against the coronavirus. 

“Allowing people to stay home and still get great care will also help address the community spread of COVID-19 and ease the global shortage of personal protective equipment — masks, gowns and gloves,” said Dr. Chris Raigosa, a physician in charge of Kaiser Permanente Santa Clarita medical offices.

Mother and daughter on telehealth call with physician. Courtesy of Kaiser Permanente

Whether coronavirus-related or not, doctors broke down how telehealth works and how to get the most out of your virtual visit: 

How to get started

Every service provider operates its telehealth services differently, but generally, the process is fairly straightforward. 

At Exer, with its recent launch of the online urgent care service VirtualCare, patients need only go online at exerurgentcare.com to request a virtual visit by using a cellphone, computer or tablet. Individuals can receive an “immediate evaluation, diagnosis and treatment plan,” according to its website. 

Similarly at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, patients need only visit henrymayourgentcare.com to schedule a remote appointment or access the patient portal to view electronic medical records or pay a bill. 

Individuals are first prescreened via an in-person appointment “to make sure that the patient is appropriate for a telehealth visit because some medical conditions are more difficult to address int that regard. We then discuss a treatment plan, according to what we’ve discussed and observed. In most regards, it’s very similar to normal visits,” said Dr. Jordan Michelena from Henry Mayo Urgent Care.

Kaiser Permanente members can also access telecommunication services, as well as phone and email options, by using the My Health Manager function on kp.org or the KP mobile app. 

What to expect during your virtual visit

As you would with an in-person visit, patients should come prepared before the start of their virtual call. 

“Make sure you have a list of medications available (and) a list of medical problems, just like you would prepare for a regular visit,” said Michelena, adding that for those who might not be comfortable with using technology in setting up the virtual call to “have someone available to help you.”  

The most common remote visits at Henry Mayo revolve around medical refill requests, help with stress and anxiety and other chronic medical problems, added Michelena. 

Ready to start your virtual visit? Patients are advised to call from a quiet place to ensure a focused one-on-one meeting with your provider, as some calls have had dogs parking or kids running around in the background, said Wilbur. 

Telehealth has its benefits and that has played a role in diagnosis and general medical attention. 

“People are much more relaxed (at home). They don’t have to get dressed and they don’t have that white-coat syndrome of having their blood pressure checked and the experience has been incredibly positive. People really appreciate having a connection by video and knowing they are safe,” said Wilbur. 

Despite the benefits of virtual care, “in-person visits are still an important part of care,” and necessary for a more thorough examination if needed, he added. 

Exer Urgent Care patients can first schedule a virtual visit with a doctor if concerned about contracting the coronavirus, to which a drive-thru test visit can then be scheduled. Courtesy of Exer Urgent Care

For one SCV resident’s daughter, telehealth with Henry Mayo was a great transition in knowing if an in-person visit was necessary. 

“It was great. We could see (the doctor) well enough and he could see us that he even asked (my daughter) to open her mouth so he could see her throat,” said Suzanne DeCuir. “Based on that conversation, he was able to decide about bringing her in.”  

Telehealth is here to stay

In less than a year ago, an estimated 10% of consumers used telehealth over in-person doctor’s office visits but usage could exceed 1 billion by this year due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to Forrester Research. 

In the SCV, doctors are already heavily relying on telecommunications and believe many more will as medical professionals aid patients who would rather stay home amid the pandemic. 

“Typically we would have focused more on face-to-face visits in urgent care but now we are trying to protect the general public by offering that additional service if they’re afraid of being exposed or if they’re of a high-risk population or just need to refill their medication,” said Michelena.

At Kaiser Permanente, more than 80% of care visits systemwide are now completed virtually by video visit or phone, which includes 14,000 video calls per day, according to Raigosa. 

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