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A Year Into COVID-19, Use Of Telehealth Options Flourishing

210312_pandemic_digital_hub.jpg
Photo courtesy OSF HealthCare
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OSF HealthCare's Pandemic Digital Hub in the new downtown OnCall facility brings together all of the organization's digital services.

With COVID-19 leading to an expansion of telehealth services in the past year, Peoria area health care professionals expect those remote treatment options to keep growing even after the pandemic ends.

“I think it’s here to stay, and I think it’s a great thing,” said Dr. Ted Bender, a clinical psychologist and president of UnityPlace in Peoria. “It’s going to improve access, which in mental health is the key to everything: improving access to care. We need to continue to work on ways to engage the unengaged.”

Bender said COVID-19 forced people to start doing more things remotely from their homes, and that includes seeking medical and mental health care.

“Think back to Jan. 1, 2020, and how many Zoom calls you’d been on compared to how many you’ve probably been on now, and it’s probably in the hundreds or even thousands,” said Bender. “We kind of as a society rapidly transitioned to getting used to using this kind of technology. Within UnityPlace, we saw  nearly a thousand-fold increase in use of our telehealth services throughout 2020 and even early here in 2021.”

Similarly, OSF HealthCare saw expanded use of telehealth services that already had been available prior to COVID-19.

“I think what COVID-19 really did was just catapult it, from the standpoint that people did not want to leave their homes and we did not want them to leave their homes,” said Jennifer Junis, senior vice president of OSF OnCall Digital Health. “We wanted to be able to care for them in their home settings without exposing clinicians and providers to COVID-19, but also then exposing the rest of the community.

“So just out of necessity, really, we saw patients gravitate towards traditional telehealth, which is having a virtual visit with their provider that they see on a regular basis. We also saw a big increase in those who don’t have a provider looking for ways to connect virtually as their first time really engaging with health care.”

Junis said OSF is able to offer a range of telehealth options from its new downtown OSF OnCall building, ranging from regular check-up appointments to patient monitoring  and virtual urgent care.

“All of our primary care providers, as well as our specialty care, have the ability to provide a telehealth visit. We also use it to provide telehealth into the hospital,” said Junis. “We have a tele-ICU that can actually provide care into the hospital setting to help partner with those onsite ICUs. That was really, really important during COVID-19 as our ICUs were really busy with patients.”

Bender said mental health care programs available at UnityPlace through telehealth services include individual psychiatric appointments, substance use disorder treatment, and group therapy. He said it was clear from the outset of the pandemic that remote treatment options would start becoming more common.

“We knew early on at UnityPlace what this meant: We had an infectious disease problem in this country (and) all over the world, and we had a business model which incorporates lots of people coming into the office being close quarters and large group sizes,” said Bender.

“So we saw the writing on the wall that telehealth services were about to explode. We spent a significant amount of energy expanding our existing platform and within about six weeks, we increased our capacity significantly.”

Junis said telehealth can be particularly helpful in rural areas, so steps were taken to address connectivity issues.

“What we found with COVID-19, because we didn’t want anyone to be left out, is in those areas that did not have a strong broadband connection we could pre-load some hotspot tablets and deploy them in the rural communities to those households that didn’t have the ability to have WiFi or Internet so they could still utilize the digital technology,” said Junis, adding she believes telehealth represents the future of health care in rural areas.

Bender said the circumstances accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly economic downturn and social isolation – present “the perfect disaster scenario for a mental health crisis” in the U.S. Although he believes in-person therapy remains the best form of mental care, he also thinks the telehealth offerings will still help address any potential increased demand.  

“There’s very little coming out of this pandemic that’s been good, but I think one of the things that is good is the explosion of this type of service because there’s simply are going to be people that can’t get to the office,” he said.

“Maybe they don’t have a car or they don’t have reliable transportation. This is definitely the next best thing for those situations so people can get the care they need, stay connected and see the doctor right on their device. It’s a huge advantage.”

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