HCA telehealth tools help Washingtonians stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington, HCA recognized the importance of allowing telehealth (phone and video-conferencing) so people could access health care even while staying home.

In response, HCA made policy decisions and investments to get phones, laptops, software and guidance to providers and clients to support telehealth.

“This time of rapid necessary change has proven to us that telehealth is an extremely effective element of health care delivery,” said HCA Director Sue Birch. “Federal and state governments have shifted quickly, and we are looking at how we can preserve telehealth as a main component of health care even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Providing secure telehealth technology

HCA has distributed Zoom Telehealth licenses to hundreds of physical and behavioral health providers serving our most vulnerable populations so they can stay in touch and offer health care services even during this time of Stay Home, Stay Healthy.

One clinic in southwest Washington, Northshore Medical Group, began using an HCA-issued Zoom Telehealth license and saw an almost immediate benefit:

“We are scheduling video well-child visits,” said clinic administrator Cindy Robertson. “Like most clinics, if the parent is contacting us for a sick visit, we try to schedule as a well-child if the parent is amenable, with the hope that we can both take care of the sick child issue, as well as interact with the parent about developmental milestones, vaccinations, etc. 

 “This particular well-child video visit was for a 4-5 year old child.  It turns out the mother was a teenager who had not interacted with the health care system since the child was born.  For context, access is not a problem in our area…we have very good same day access and are open seven days with walk-ins (including well-child appointments) seven days a week. For whatever set of reasons, the mother has not been able to bring her child to the doctor before, but the video visit yesterday felt like something she could access. The provider was able to have a great interaction with the mother, the mother feels much less alone, and she is bringing her child by our office to get some vaccinations in the car today.” 

Getting tools in the hands of providers and clients

Additionally, HCA has distributed thousands of phones donated by cell phone companies through the State Military Department to tribes, fee-for-service Apple Health clients, individuals enrolled in the Foundational Community Supports program (housing and employment support) and in long-term care facilities. The phones have 400 talk minutes and unlimited data (texting and internet). 

These phones as well as several hundred HCA-issued loaner laptops to providers are helping clients and providers stay connected through online appointments. One case manager in King County shared this story:

“My client has recently been struggling with some mental health complications after finding out that his mother who he lives with has been diagnosed with lung cancer and she started her first chemo treatment last week. This phone is going to allow him to have access to telehealth and virtual counseling sessions. He currently doesn’t have a phone so this will greatly help him have access to more services and a way for him to be able to reach out if he is not feeling well and needing some support.

“His mom will greatly benefit from her phone so that she is able to communicate with her son when she is at the hospital getting her chemo treatments. Yesterday when I was talking with her, our call was cut off because she ran out of minutes on her phone. She then had to go to the store in order to buy more minutes for her phone. She is in a motorized scooter and has to take public transportation in order to get to the store. This new phone will make it so that she isn’t having to potentially expose herself to COVID-19 when on the bus or when going to the store to buy more minutes.  

“When I called the family to let them know that these phones were being sent to them, the mom cried with relief and happiness and is so grateful for being able to get a new phone. He was just as excited and it was the sliver of good news that he needed during such a difficult time for their family.”

We also heard from others, such as an individual who is experiencing homelessness. He was recently awarded a Section 8 voucher, and is using one of the donated phones to connect with apartment managers during his search for housing. A man enrolled in counseling services in Pend Oreille County but works in Idaho would have had to take up to three hours of work off to attend appointments. Thanks to a donated phone, he is able to attend his appointments without having to miss work. 

Offering flexibility in telehealth policies

In addition to HCA’s existing telemedicine policies, HCA has offered additional flexibility in the types of services we are allowing to be delivered using telehealth. For example:

  • We have approved over-the-phone interpretation services for Apple Health clients in their home language.
  • Providers of Applied Behavioral Analysis services to children with autism are able to deliver services via telehealth.
  • We have approved a rate to pay for emergency dental services via telehealth for Apple Health clients.
  • We are providing additional funding for telehealth visits that occur outside of traditional office hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.