The coronavirus forced our healthcare system to make sweeping operational changes. In rural health clinics and in the state’s largest hospitals, providers started relying more on telehealth to see patients through live video to limit exposure to COVID-19.
“I think we’re going to stop saying, ‘Why do we have to do this via telehealth?’ now to, ‘Why don’t we just do this via telehealth?’” said Bryna Rickett, a nurse at the Medical University of South Carolina. “I think people are really going to see the benefits of it. I think it is no longer the future; I think it is our present way of doing things.”
Especially in rural areas, where access to healthcare is already limited, telehealth became essential. A survey conducted by the South Carolina Office of Rural Health found that 90 percent of rural health clinics are using telehealth.
At CareSouth Carolina, a federally qualified healthcare center in Hartsville, their telehealth operation was mostly based in the local school system.
“When schools were closed, we were immediately pretty much shut down,” said Jeri Andrews, a nurse practitioner and telehealth leader at CareSouth. “So, we took that week to say, ‘Hey, you know what? We still have to provide care to our patients, so let’s see what we can do with telehealth.’”
Telehealth usage surged at CareSouth in the past few months. Andrews says they’re doing more than 40 percent of all appointments – across 15 clinics – through video or phone visits. Before the pandemic, Andrews estimated less than five percent of visits occurred via telehealth.
For years, South Carolina has invested in developing a statewide telehealth network for some subspecialties including cardiology, neurology, stroke care, and psychiatry.
“We were hard at work developing those programs in order to get care out to all South Carolinians well before this pandemic hit,” said Dr. Katie King, associate executive medical director at MUSC’s Center for Telehealth. “I think this gave us an advantage in the fight because we’ve been able to reconfigure and utilize those existing programs to best address the needs of our patients and the community.”
Prisma Health Upstate found tele-psychiatry to be extremely successful during the past few months.
“Both our providers and our patients have found this to be a great experience,” said Dr. Karen Lommel, a Prisma psychiatrist based in Greenville. “We’ve really been able to get to know some of our patients in their home environment.”
Providers say a majority of their patients have been satisfied with telehealth as an alternative way to seek care, and they expect it to stay prominent after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
“I think most of our patients actually like it. They’ve been able to see how easy it is, how convenient it is,” said Jeri Andrews. “They don’t have to leave their homes. I really feel like when COVID ends, telehealth isn’t going to go away.”