The COVID-19 crisis has brought a lot of changes to our community and across the nation. Even before it was classified as a pandemic, healthcare facilities such as Northern Light AR Gould Hospital were putting steps in place to best protect their patients, staff, and communities from this virus.

While these steps have protected people as intended, patients have not had the normal access they have come to depend on to their healthcare professionals. Thanks to improved technology, access between providers and patients is available once again.

“While telehealth has been an option for a while, it was not widely used in the outpatient setting, due both to certain restrictions that were cumbersome as well as the lack of coverage by both private and government insurers,” explains Jay Reynolds, MD, senior physician executive at AR Gould Hospital. “With the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, these issues have been, at least temporarily, addressed. It has allowed healthcare facilities such as ours to fast-track this service for patients.”

Northern Light AR Gould
Northern Light AR Gould

While some of these telehealth services are being offered in areas that you might expect, such as behavioral health, others are thriving in unexpected areas. One of these areas at AR Gould Hospital is the Therapy and Rehabilitation Department, which offers physical, occupational, and speech therapy to both inpatients and outpatients.

Creativity is the key to success with using telehealth in the therapy world, according to Sydney Humphrey, MA, CCC-SLP. “Telehealth is a unique opportunity for therapists to see patients in their home environment and provide activities and resources to help with the carry-over of our goals outside of a controlled therapy environment.”

Having that opportunity for services has been a win for patients and their families.

Charlotte and Brad Ala are the parents of five-year-old Jacob, who is getting speech therapy from Humphrey to help with articulation. “Knowing how much practice it takes for a new skill to become automatic, having a long break in services was very concerning,” says Charlotte. She admits she was a little hesitant at first about using telehealth, particularly because of her son’s age, but is now glad they moved forward with it.

“It has been amazing! Jacob is excited each week to see his therapist. The warm and welcoming environment that we were so accustomed to at the hospital has continued with telehealth. His therapist goes above and beyond to make each session engaging while focusing on his goals. It has been wonderful to watch Jacob maintain not only prior learned skills but also build new ones. Each session is personalized to his individual needs in a fun and motivating way,” explains Charlotte.

“Telehealth has prevented a regression in skills and has allowed me as a parent to continue to be actively involved in my child’s treatment. His therapist works closely with us, just as she would in the hospital setting, and is constantly offering suggestions or ideas for things to try at home.”

As important as this reconnection is to patients, it is also important to the therapists.

“Many therapists are natural-born ‘helpers,’ so being unable to see our patients during a scary, and somewhat chaotic time was really difficult. We create such strong relationships and bonds with our patients—not being able to see them or address their needs weighed heavily on my heart and mind,” says Humphrey.

That sentiment was echoed by Jacob as well. “I love playing my games with Miss Sydney. We have fun! I like that I get to see her, I missed her,” he says.

Humphrey has been able to put her telehealth experience to good use to help others across the Northern Light Health system connect with their patients as well. She recently led a Zoom training session with other rehab managers and therapists to provide tips on how to use Zoom technology as well as how to integrate interactive therapy activities.

She sees telehealth as a valuable resource that will only continue to grow even after the COVID-19 crisis.

“We have patients who would benefit from this service due to geographical barriers, weather, and transportation concerns. I think our success in getting our program going within a matter of weeks shows that we can continue to expand and grow it further,” she says.

In addition to behavioral health and rehabilitation therapy, AR Gould Hospital is also currently offering outpatient telehealth in primary care, pediatrics, and cardiology when appropriate. Telehealth for dietitian visits will soon be available, and the hospital is working on telehealth opportunities in other specialty areas as well. These services are offered via a secure, HIPAA-compliant Zoom application or over the telephone.

Northern Light Health has established a dedicated help desk line for patients who are having issues using Zoom for a telehealth appointment. Patients can receive technical assistance over the phone by calling 1-833-217-9640. Patients who are interested in setting up a telehealth appointment can reach out to their provider’s office or use the patient portal to do so.

AR Gould Hospital is currently seeing about 200 patients a day via telehealth. Understandably, it is not appropriate for all patients, and even for those who it could work for, access to technology may be a barrier. However, for many, it has been a blessing…one that will continue to grow as more services adopt the telehealth model.

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