“In the coming years, we see telehealth and home health ... becoming prevalent and embedded into how hospitals and clinics practice medicine.”

That’s a quote from Dr. James Hoffmann, the President of Olmsted Medical Center.

From December of 2019.

“As technology continues to evolve and change, this will present OMC with opportunities to find more personalized and sophisticated ways to deliver the care our patients want and need,” Dr. Hoffman told us then. “We see advances in technology as a way to continue to help our patients be actively engaged in their healthcare.”

And while OMC was already working hard—and starting to implement more telemedicine (practicing medicine at a distance) and telehealth (remote healthcare delivery)—they had no idea how important that technology would become.

And how soon.

Two months later, OMC’s Telehealth service has played a major role in how the organization—and the county—have helped fight COVID-19.

In late March, we talked to Dr. Melissa Richards, the department chair of OMC’s obstetrics and gynecology department about telehealth in the age of COVID-19.

At what point did you realize the impact of covid-19, and how were resources shifted to telehealth?

The personal impact of COVID-19 became apparent with the reports coming out of countries that were in the midst of the pandemic. As an organization, we were acutely aware our patients would continue to have healthcare needs that required action. We were able to quickly triage patients that needed in-person clinic visits versus those who could be seen by telephone or video visits. Within the obstetrics and gynecology department, we quickly put together a staffing plan to not only minimize possible COVID-19 exposure for patients but also for staff. There are designated clinicians seeing patients face-to-face as well as designated clinicians seeing patients through telehealth visits.

I know it was already in place, but how have you ramped up telehealth in direct response to COVID-19?

In the obstetrics and gynecology department, we recognized at the start of the pandemic that many of our patients could be seen either through a telephone visit or telehealth video visit to meet her women’s health needs while minimizing her potential exposure to the coronavirus. There are number of gynecologic issues such as fertility, heavy periods, urinary issues, and birth control that can be initially discussed prior to an exam, if an exam is even necessary. We also decreased the number of obstetric clinic visits to face-to-face clinic visits for our pregnant patients based on national recommendations. We then added telehealth visits either through video visits or telephone visits between in-clinic visits.

Can you give any specifics regarding telehealth?

Those departments at Olmsted Medical Center which typically do not involve a physical exam, such as psychiatry and psychology, are doing a large number of their clinic visits through telehealth. Patient education is another service line where telehealth makes a practical connection. Our diabetic nurse educators and dieticians have transitioned almost all of their in-office visits to telehealth visits. Some of the clinicians at OMC are doing a combination of telehealth visits and in-clinic visits. Within the obstetrics and gynecology department, about one-third of visits are currently being done through telehealth. We would like to encourage patients to consider scheduling a telehealth visit as an option to practice social distancing and also manage healthcare needs. We know that patients have medical issues outside of COVID-19. Telehealth provides a safe option during this time.

Did COVID-19 propel you to move telehealth to the forefront sooner than you had planned?

Olmsted Medical Center has been utilizing telehealth for nursing home visits as well as branch clinic patients for a number of years. This has allowed a patient being seen, for example at the OMC Plainview Clinic, by a pre-op nurse in Rochester without having to make the drive to Rochester. The COVID-19 pandemic did propel us to move into a new space in telehealth at a quicker pace than previously planned.

What should patients know about telehealth as it relates to the COVID-19 crisis?

We really encourage patients with medical concerns that want to practice social distancing to call for a telehealth appointment. We have the capacity to see patients and want to see them. We do not want to delay an evaluation and treatment that could be managed through telehealth as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Even if an office visit is still required to complete a patient’s care after the initial telehealth visit, the time in the office visit can be much more focused and efficient, returning the patient more quickly to social distancing and shelter at home.

What specifically have you seen from OMC staffers in this time of crisis?

About one week into pandemic planning, the nursing staff in my department at the hospital wrote chalk messages of hope and encouragement on the sidewalk outside of one of the employee entrances. Many patients have simply said, “Thank you for seeing me today. Thank you for being here.” I have witnessed how humbled our staff has been at the support from the community and patients we serve. They feel the appreciation.

How has telehealth been a positive response to COVID-19?

The continued expansion of telehealth will definitely be one of the positive outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who previously could not schedule a clinic visit due to time or transportation constraints can initially address their concerns in a timely fashion through a telehealth visit. Not all visits can be done through telehealth, but I see this as an exciting option for many of our patients.