Medical centers, practitioners are relying more on telemedicine calls to care for patients
BY RACHEL CUCCURULLO
As COVID-19 made its way through the region, both elected officials and healthcare centers took the necessary steps to ensure that not only their patients were safe, but their staffs and livelihoods as well.
On March 31, St. Lucie County commissioners approved a stay-at-home order for residents that lasted approximately six weeks. They encouraged residents to shelter in place in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For safety purposes, elective surgeries and diagnostic procedures were postponed. Fortunately, medical practitioners have been able to carry out appointments via telehealth even during the initial stay-at-home order phase.
“Although I specialize in rheumatology, when COVID affected our area at the end of March, I reached out to the infectious disease specialist in the area, Dr. Moti Ramgopal,” Lindsey R. Porth, FNP-BC Rheumatology said. “As rheumatology patients are often immunocompromised, I was concerned about their health and safety. Dr. Ramgopal recommended that I begin strictly treating these patients via telehealth.”
Once the stay-at-home order was lifted, Porth’s office started scheduling office appointments again.
“Masks are required for both patients and staff. Patients are prescreened for symptoms associated with COVID by phone the day before their appointment and again before entering the building on the day of their appointment,” Porth said. “Patients’ temperatures are also taken at the front desk before being seen. Finally, proper hand washing and sanitizing practices are carried out along with frequent sanitization of office equipment throughout the day.”
Porth, like most medical practitioners, realizes that these new safety protocols are the standard of care. Practices throughout the county are finding their own way to carry out appointments during the pandemic, but general safety precautions are fairly similar across the board.
“During the month of lockdown, I did not offer telehealth appointments,” Dr. Shamsher Singh said. “We did not see patients. Many of which are considered at risk.”
Presently, Singh who is a dermatologist, advises his more elderly, at-risk patients to stay home unless it is an absolute emergency. These types of precautions have been observed in most all medical facilities and are helping to keep patients from contracting or spreading the virus to others.
“We have masks, hand sanitizers and infrared thermometers. A glass partition was installed at the check-in window,” Singh said. “All chairs, door handles are wiped with Lysol wipes twice a day.”
Because many people are erring more on the side of caution, medical facilities are noticing a decrease in appointments made.
NUMBER OF CASES DROP
“The number of COVID-19 cases has dropped from about 12,000 to 15,000 a day to less than 4,000. If people start getting careless, we will be back to where we started from,” Singh said. “Patient load has diminished by about 50%, but no complaints here.”
Overall, staff and patients have accepted the changes. Some patients are more compliant than others and may or may not take issue with wearing a mask.
“We now offer a mask to every patient who walks in without a mask. So far, we haven’t had any tantrums about not wearing a mask because it is a violation of their First Amendment rights,” Singh said, matter-of-factly.
Nevertheless, even Singh’s patients who have respiratory issues take to wearing the mask. It may be physically uncomfortable for some, but they do their part to protect others and wear one.
Both Lawnwood Regional Medical Center and St. Lucie Medical Center are part of HCA Healthcare. Their CEOs, Eric Goldman [Lawnwood] and Jay Finnegan [St. Lucie], are looking forward toward continuing to plan for the future and the expanding healthcare needs of our growing community.
“As a part of HCA Healthcare, we have the unique ability to leverage our network of hospitals to ensure that our facilities remain well-supported as we deal with the evolving pandemic,” said Tiffany Woods, director of public relations and communications for Lawnwood and St. Lucie medical centers.
Both medical centers are huge servicing points for the residents of St. Lucie County. They, too, have implemented a number of measures to ensure patients and employees are kept safe from COVID-19. St. Lucie Medical and Lawnwood have both included pre-screening processes for all individuals entering their facilities.
“Both of our hospitals include pre-screening at entrances, limited visitation, an enhanced cleaning protocol and universal masking,” Woods said. “We are also treating all COVID-19 patients in an isolated area to ensure that our hospitals are a safe place for care.”
The majority of St. Lucie Medical and Lawnwood’s medical staffs, which include primary care doctors and specialists, also offer telehealth appointments as an option for patients.
“Patients who may be more comfortable receiving care from the comfort of their home are able to utilize the telehealth option,” Woods said. “Both CareNow Urgent Care and Heart and Family Physicians facilities are also offering patients telemedicine options.”
Across the board, people are witnessing a revolution in the way that healthcare visits are carried out. As COVID-19 continues to pose a risk to Americans, these safety precautions not only keep doctors and nurses safe, but patients as well.
“Virtually all of my patients are glad that telehealth has been available as an option to continue their care during this detrimental time,” Porth said. “Some patients have even expressed their desire for the option to do telehealth when applicable after the pandemic. Unfortunately, I have seen the COVID pandemic cause depression for some of my patients because their routine has been greatly affected.”
While doctors have had to adjust to telehealth as the “new normal,” so have patients.
“I am happy to do it as I know it is in the best interest of my patients,” Porth said. “While I do miss the personable face-to-face interaction with my patients, we are making the most out of the challenges and limitations created by COVID.”
Workload has increased for most facilities because of the telehealth option and has affected all aspects of patient and provider flow. Things that were once taken for granted such as the ability for patients to have family present during trying times has changed because of the pandemic.
“However, being able to visit face-to-face while utilizing virtual technology has been a resource that has offered my patients and I opportunities to connect both safely and personably as possible,” Porth said.
For St. Lucie Medical and Lawnwood centers, their staffs have long been focused on sustaining a culture of excellence and delivering high-quality care. They, along with many other local facilities, have been able to successfully create and execute precautionary practices that protect patient and staff. With well-established procedures in place to care for patients with infectious diseases, they have been working in partnership with the Florida Department of Health to ensure they are able to effectively identify and care for possible patients with COVID-19.
“We are proud of how our colleagues have supported our patients, communities and each other with dedication, professionalism and compassion while showing an extraordinary level of commitment to providing exceptional care throughout this unprecedented time,” Woods said.