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One daughter's story of how telemedicine helped her addicted father - Healthcare IT News

Erica Land wasn't surprised to get a call that her father needed to be rushed to the emergency department. He's long struggled with addiction, and this time it was a near-lethal combination of heroin and fentanyl. She'd lost count of how many times this scene had replayed.

What surprised her was that because of the pandemic, the ED could offer to connect her father to a psychiatrist via telehealth. Even more surprising, he accepted. It was the first time she'd been hopeful in a long time.

As it happens, Erica works in telemedicine, as a clinical operations specialist at VirtualMed Staff. What's more, the psychiatrist who treated her father wasn't just any psychiatrist – he was a psychiatrist from the company. When it comes to the impact of COVID-19 on telepsychiatry services, consults saw increases ranging from 38% to 105% in 2020, according to VirtualMed Staff research.

Healthcare IT News sat down with Erica to talk about her personal and professional experiences with telehealth, and how virtual care can improve patient outcomes.

Q. Please tell the story of the experience your father had in the emergency room with telepsychiatry and how use of that technology changed the outcome had the technology not been there.

A. Growing up with a parent who suffers from alcohol and opiate addiction meant that visits to the ER were not uncommon. Typically, my dad would only spend a few hours recovering and then quickly be dismissed from the hospital without a treatment plan, only to return a month or two down the road from another overdose.

Addiction is a vicious cycle. What makes it even worse is that most of these patients who are suffering aren't given an opportunity to beat the disease. They're treated like the elephant in the room, a frequent visitor that hospitals have become accustomed to seeing time and time again. This stigma entrenches the disease even further and makes any chance at recovery a constant uphill battle.

Fortunately, the introduction of telepsychiatry changed things for my father. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I truly felt like he had a fighting chance to beat his addiction. By meeting with a virtual psychiatrist, I felt like he was being heard for the first time and was provided with a treatment plan that was specifically built for him.

The best part was that this wasn't a "one and done" type treatment plan. Telemedicine provided an opportunity for more frequent touchpoints and easier access to care than ever before. He could meet with a virtual psychiatrist via an outpatient facility in the hope that it would put him on a better path toward recovery. I was hopeful there was a chance at a successful recovery. Had telemedicine not been available, I felt like it would have been the same routine as before.

Telemedicine provides a lifeline for millions of substance abuse addicts across the country, including my father. It's not a magic pill, but it is a path toward hope and healing for not only the patients, but the families, as well.

Q. What do you do in your role as a clinical operations specialist? What is your part in the process of telemedicine? Who do you serve?

A. As a clinical operations specialist, I manage the operations of telemedicine programs for health systems and hospitals across the United States. My goal is to provide them with the best opportunities to replicate the experience and quality of an in-person visit by designing telemedicine programs that are centered on the needs and experiences of the patient.

One of my main responsibilities is to provide 24/7 support for telemedicine programs and the physicians who we staff to operate the programs. There is never a time during my day that I am not available for our hospital and physician partners.

Whenever issues arise between the telemedicine physicians and the health system, I serve as the main point of contact to help quickly resolve issues and ensure all parties are satisfied with the resolution that ultimately provides the best patient outcome.

In my role, I make the biggest impact and improve patient outcomes by leveraging data and metrics. Through data-driven insights, we can see the true value that telehealth provides – the proof that it works – and continue to make even more advances in this field.

With every single client and hospital, I analyze and track specific KPIs that serve to improve response times and door-to-needle times, and lead to better patient outcomes.

Q. How do the telehealth services you and your colleagues provide contribute to improved patient outcomes?

A. Working for an experienced telemedicine company that operates in more than 400 hospitals across the country, I have seen firsthand the miracles that happen every day through telemedicine. Specialties and service lines are different – each offering a solution for improving the treatments and outcomes of patients.

Telemedicine specialties, such as tele-neurology and tele-stroke, offer solutions for improving the response time and treatment of stroke patients by providing a team of neurologists when and where they're needed.

Prior to telemedicine, if a hospital did not have a neurologist on site, the patient would have to travel farther to receive treatment. When seconds equal brain cells, any delay in treatment can mean the difference between a successful recovery and long-term health complications.

Telepsychiatry provides a solution for those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse addiction. There is already a well-known shortage of psychiatrists across the country, which means when patients enter the emergency department, they often face long waits, even days, before speaking with someone who can stabilize, diagnose and provide a treatment plan for them to be discharged.

Delays can result in worsening conditions, and without easy access for follow-up care, result in a vicious cycle that is difficult to overcome. Telepsychiatry bridges the gap in care by providing easier access to specialists, anywhere, at any time.

Q. Please describe one of the most memorable experiences you've had on the job as a clinical operations specialist helping to provide virtual care.

A. I can honestly say that I wake up every single morning inspired and motivated to make a difference in the lives of patients across the country. Working with a telemedicine company has given me the opportunity to experience firsthand the positive impact telemedicine can make on patients, families and communities. Here are a few of my favorite stories.

A common phrase in neurology and stroke care is "time is brain." By shortening the response time for stroke patients to receive treatment, you can instantly change the trajectory of their recoveries for the better.

One of the services I provide is optimizing workflows and analyzing data to improve response times and get treatment to patients faster. One health system we partnered with was able to decrease its door-to-needle response time from an average of 60 minutes to a record 14 minutes.

This was huge. The hospital was overjoyed, and my work helping develop workflows and remove barriers to care meant we were providing patients with a better chance at a successful recovery and more time with their loved ones.

Another story is the time I volunteered to serve in the 24/7 call center for a telemedicine program in order for the hospital to go live and provide treatment to its patients. This opportunity allowed me to get to know the onsite staff on a personal level and witness the impact the telemedicine program was having on their lives firsthand.

It truly opened my eyes and helped me better understand our mission as a telemedicine company and how our work not only improves the lives of patients but also the onsite staff.

As I continue to grow in my career and in the field of telemedicine, I hope to continue to share my personal stories and experiences to promote the benefits of telemedicine, as well as shed the stigma that surrounds mental health.

Telemedicine offers hope to those during their darkest days, and too often, we forget the impact we can have on others by sharing our stories and letting others see that they don't have to be another statistic. Telemedicine can be a powerful part of their recovery and success story.  

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT Email the writer: [email protected] Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.