In recent years, telehealth services have grown in output and scope, providing areas of natural disasters or severely contagious diseases with the means to sustain care and function day-to-day. Telehealth in crisis management has become instrumental in helping providers respond faster.

For example, during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, telehealth professionals from Access Physicians assisted many hospitals whose employed workers were not able to access the buildings due to flooding and other hazardous road conditions.

Hundreds of patients were saved by Access Physicians’ quick response and ability to connect numerous professionals with the hospitals most severely affected by the storm. The company usually only provides specialty care, but in the wake of Harvey, the remote doctors on staff assumed daily duties, assisting doctors and nurses physically trapped in the building with their patients.

The value of telemedicine has been demonstrated time and time again since Harvey, in areas of other disasters or in foreign countries like West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak restricted doctors’ physical access to patients, or Syria, where bloody civil war endangers the lives of any who travel to the country in person. The many disasters and unstable regions around the world have paved the way for telemedicine to develop quickly and efficiently, as citizens across the globe are relying more heavily on remote-assisted practices.

Advancing technology aids telemedicine

Access Physicians’ key to performing telemedicine is their firm grasp of the latest technology available. Each physician receives access to a large cart, complete with movable HD camera, a moderately sized iMac, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and a digital stethoscope.

During Harvey, loss of hospital power was a routine occurrence; however, because the carts came equipped with a hotspot and data plans for such occurrences, hospital staffers were able to keep their operations running on 4G networks. The carts, which are nearly six feet tall, are built to replicate the experience of face-to-face communications with specialists. The height requires eye contact which would be used when speaking to a physician face to face. 

The secondary goal of Access Physicians, after providing quality, remote healthcare, is to let the patient look past the technology and immerse them in the care. Leaders of the organization stress the natural and intimate feel of their technology. Most of the work physicians attend to isn’t procedural, but instead revolves around data collection, diagnosing illnesses, and coming up with a treatment plan for each individual patient. Their input is heard and executed by the physical clinical team at each location.

This method for doctor-patient interaction helps more doctors treat more patients in an efficient, timely manner. Many telemedicine doctors are able to be at their patients’ “bedside” within a matter of minutes, not hours, which greatly decreases the chances of catastrophe and saves lives. This is a great example of telehealth in crisis management.

Telemedicine in Puerto Rico

The power of telemedicine was demonstrated again in 2017, after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico. New York-Presbyterian Hospital planned to send teams of physicians down to the island to aid with the recovery, but many officials wondered if aiding the doctors through telemedicine would be safer and more efficient. The task ahead was not simple, as most of Puerto Rico was left without power. However, Cisco Systems, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, established internet connection via satellite link in the affected areas.

This revelation allowed the doctors on the ground in Puerto Rico to link back to specialists in New York through NYP OnDemand, the system’s telemedicine portal. Doctors were able to use laptop cameras simply and effectively to go about their day-to-day business. The experiment was an unqualified success, as both physicians back in New York and in Puerto Rico were able to establish their normal work routine without technical difficulties.

One doctor helping out during this experience was Dr. Shari Platt, chief of pediatric emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Doctor Platt helped oversee a session between an NYP physician in Puerto Rico and a pediatric subspecialist back in New York. The Puerto Rico-stationed doctor was treating a diabetic two-year-old boy who had gone without insulin, as refrigeration was lost in most parts of the country.

The ability for the New York-based specialist to see the boy over network was invaluable; physical sight allowed the specialist to observe breathing function and general activity in the boy and gave NYP the confidence in recommending a treatment plan. This connection was only one of many being established by a plethora of New York City doctors ready to do their part through telemedicine.

Telemedicine in Florida

The power of telehealth didn’t stop with Hurricanes Harvey or Maria. In 2017, Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc across Florida and isolated many residents there. Pediatrician Patricia Solo-Josephson took the opportunity to man a telemedicine station in Jacksonville, providing advice and remote care to children whose parents couldn’t drive to a hospital.

Solo-Josephson helped alleviate many fears of parents who were strongly considering driving through level four winds and nonexistent visibility, often to make trips that would not have been needed. Many infants with coughs were observed by Josephson but almost all showed no signs of respiratory damage or fatigue. Though frightened, parents were reassured of their child’s health and were able to stay indoors, avoiding the Hurricane. 

Nemours, the facility Josephson joined during Irma, started their telemedicine branch in 2015, using equipment from American Well and Vidyo. The company has helped nearly twenty thousand patients, many of which were called in because of fever, cough, or rash. Nemours didn’t branch out into telemedicine with the idea of using the technology during disasters and outbreaks, but they quickly shifted gears once they realized the potential of their services. Now, the company caters to families during disasters, preventing dangerous trips to hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

During Hurricane Irma, Nemours was contacted 262 times, with an average wait of just twelve minutes for patients. These are staggering numbers which demonstrate the huge impact of telemedicine during emergencies. The company also used its capabilities during a blizzard in Delaware and even offered assistance during Harvey, though Texas is nowhere near the company’s home base. The ability to help those in need has driven the company to stretch itself throughout the country, providing quality medical care to those most in need.

Final thoughts about telehealth in crisis management

Telemedicine is transforming the way hospitals and professionals do business; with technology advancing every day, the ability for physicians to diagnose and treat patients from hundreds of miles away is becoming increasingly easier. Soon, telemedicine will be utilized in every major disaster across the country and, hopefully, across the globe. Explore other telehealth articles and resources with Telehealthist.com.