Technology offers new ways for health systems to meet the needs of their communities during natural disasters, and telehealth is moving center stage as the go-to resource.
As Hurricane Florence barrels toward the coast of the Carolinas, telehealth providers, including American Well, Teladoc Health, Doctor on Demand, MDLIVE, and many other organizations, including insurance companies, are reaching out to affected communities, offering free access to their services for those who may not be able to access their normal healthcare providers during and after the storm.
This humanitarian effort is a recent phenomenon enabled by evolving technology. It also adds a critically useful element to the household disaster preparedness toolkit: a telehealth app.
What does this new dynamic mean for health systems that provide these services? It offers access to care when patients and community members need it most, building engagement and satisfaction, and perhaps presenting an opportunity to reach new consumers.
Calls Surged During Irma
Nemours Children's Health System discovered the power of telehealth this time last year when Hurricane Irma hit Florida. Calls to Nemours CareConnect, the system's 24/7 direct-to-consumer app, increased by 2,000% over the same period the previous year. Busiest times? The days before and after the storm.
"It was an anxious time for parents because they couldn't access their physicians," says Joanne Boezem, MD, medical director for Nemours CareConnect. "And, because of the conditions of the roads, it was difficult for them to get to emergency care."
The reasons for the televisits were no different than the calls Nemours typically receives: fevers, skin infections, GI complaints, and respiratory illnesses.
"But what was interesting," says Dr. Boezem, "is that we looked at patient satisfaction afterwards." While hold times were longer, due to increased volume, "parents were even more satisfied than they were [during the same period a] year ago."
Prescription Drug Access Hampered
After analyzing the experience, post-hurricane, Nemours identified one significant opportunity for improvement: access to prescription drugs. While the hospital worked with a few key pharmacies to stay open, the same issues that prevented parents from getting to physicians'' offices, made it difficult to get medication. Road conditions limited driving, and many pharmacies were closed.
Nemours continues to address this issue to prevent future challenges, but the unpredictability of natural disasters requires additional planning.
"The lesson that we learned here is that if your child has chronic illness, you need to refill your medications as part of your disaster preparedness plan," says Boezem. "Also, download the app and learn to use it before the storm hits so that you're comfortable using it when the time comes."
Tech Changing Healthcare Delivery
Technology offers new ways for health systems to meet the needs of their communities during natural disasters, and telehealth is moving center stage as the go-to resource. Representatives from two leading telehealth companies have seen the transformation occur in markets across the country.
“Technology plays a key role in overcoming access barriers and distributing quality healthcare in a more efficient manner,” says Roy Schoenberg, MD, CEO of American Well. “One of telehealth’s biggest powers is its ability to beam care instantly to where its most needed. Often this 'superpower' is used for convenience, but when a disaster strikes, like hurricanes in the Southeast, a flood in Houston, or area fires in California, telehealth can mean the difference between being stranded, and getting the care you need."
"During natural disasters, we’ve seen virtual care be a valuable tool for health systems, enabling them to expand their abilities to provide access to care to those in affected areas, says Anne Stowell, vice president of member experience for Teladoc Health. "As we saw with Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, through telehealth, clinicians can be effectively mobilized, even if the patient is displaced during a storm, to deliver quality care. The nature of technology and operations also helps physicians who impacted or even evacuated themselves, still take calls and provide care."
Free Telehealth During Florence
American Well is offering access to those located in areas impacted by the storm through its Amwell app and online; Teladoc's services are available in the same manner. Doctor on Demand offers a special link for those in affected areas to download its app, then entering the code FLORENCE2018 at the prompt. In addition, MDLIVE, other telehealth providers, and health insurance companies may be providing free or discounted services for those impacted by Hurricane Florence, including local hospital systems and health insurance companies.
Residents impacted by the storm should check with their provider and download apps before power is affected.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include information about Doctors on Demand.
Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.
Photo credit: (at top) iStockphoto