Researchers Discuss Telehealth's Role in Coronavirus Response

Mar 23, 2020

In his downtown Charleston office, Dr. David McSwain is getting ready for a conference call with dozens of pediatric telehealth experts from across the country. As the co-founder and lead investigator on SPROUT (Supporting Pediatric Research on Outcomes and Utilization of Telehealth), Dr. McSwain is bringing the group together to discuss how each hospital system is using telehealth to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re well-suited to address the emerging issues that impact telehealth such as COVID-19,” Dr. McSwain says, after introducing himself to the group. “And in fact, it is our responsibility for our patients and our communities to do our best to address this.”

Telehealth is the exchange of medical information from one site to another through technology. In its most common form, it looks like Skype or FaceTime with a doctor on the other side of the screen.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak reached the United States, telehealth has played a key role in hospitals’ response strategy.

“Our main focus is actually enabling inpatient telehealth in our own shop to accommodate a virtual PPE (personal protective equipment) model, and trying to minimize exposure to healthcare providers,” said Dr. Mark Lo, the medical director for telehealth and digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said in the conference call. 

“Number two is that we were trying to increase the use of clinic to clinic telehealth. Third was, we’re actually converting inpatient or in-person clinic visits to phone visits.”

South Carolina’s hospitals have deployed a similar strategy. McLeod HealthPrisma HealthRoper St. Francis, and the Medical University of South Carolina have all offered free screenings to South Carolina residents through their online care platforms.

“We’ve been using our virtual urgent care tool as kind of the public health screening mechanism for the state and the pathway for testing,” said Dr. Katie King, associate executive medical director at MUSC’s center for telehealth. “So folks are directed to that tool, screened through a standardized protocol, and then the testing is ordered through that system, at which point they are directed to a scheduled visit at a drive-thru testing center.”

Several hospitals said they’re working to get more doctors trained on their telehealth platforms to meet the increasing demand for online screenings. Some have considered letting doctors see patients from home if they’re not sick.

“We have looked at options as well in terms of people working from home and doing virtual visits or managing some of our e-visits,” Dr. Daniela Isakov, a pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic, told the group.

SPROUT ended its call focusing on can be learned about telehealth from this pandemic. They are a research group, after all. Dr. John Chuo, another SPROUT co-founder from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says this will be a teachable moment that will inform how hospitals across the country deploy telehealth during the next pandemic.

“This is important because we need high quality data to help guide us on how to best use telemedicine to meet our patients’ needs here in a pandemic situation,” Dr. Chuo said. “And I’d like to expand this outside of COVID-19, even to when we have crisis situations. It helps us refine our telehealth programs to address the needs of our patients.”