For Hard-To-Reach Texans, Virtual Doctors Visits Here To Stay
An hour before the first patients arrive, Julie Chugh buzzes around The Free Clinic inside Lubbock Impact, making sure everything is ready. That includes the Zoom exam rooms.
“We’re operating totally telemedicine,” Chugh, a first-year student at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, explained. “So Wednesdays, we come in in the afternoon, follow-up with anyone who’s reached out to us in the past week. We get them in for an appointment.”
Chugh is a student leader at The Free Clinic, which is operated by the TTUHSC. Once a week, younger medical students are paired with older ones to treat uninsured adults who have barriers to healthcare. They present their care plans to a physician for approval. Some patients have chronic illnesses and rely on this service for care and medication.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the clinic operators knew they needed to keep going. Using telemedicine, they were able to keep this vital resource open for the community.
“If they can connect to Zoom from home, then we just Zoom them from the clinic,” Chugh said. “If not, then we were actually able to purchase some tablets and they can come on-site and we put them up in a room on their own.”
Telemedicine use didn’t just increase at this clinic, though. It expanded across the university’s medical system.
Lori Rice Spearman, president of the TTUHSC, said they went from doing a dozen virtual appointments regularly to hundreds.
“It was a 23,000% increase,” Rice Spearman said. “And I had them check that number - 23,000% increase.”
Rice Spearman said telemedicine bridges some of the gaps in healthcare access that became wider during the pandemic. Online doctor appointments have particularly benefited rural and lower-income Texans. The school has known this for decades. The TTUHSC has been a pioneer in telehealth since the 1980s.
Dr. Ariel Santos is the director of the school’s telemedicine programs. He’s also a surgeon - a very hands-on medical speciality. He gave an example of how he uses telemedicine to meet with far-away patients before and after surgeries.
“After an appendectomy, it’s just a five minute appointment,” Santos said. “While the waiting and the traveling is probably three hours or four hours total.”
Santos is excited to see a new focus on the possibilities of telehealth. Especially in the Texas legislature.
State lawmakers are looking to improve access to telehealth services with two high-priority bills. One is House Bill 4, which will make telemedicine a more permanent and viable option for many state health programs. Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, wrote the legislation.
”It’s a telemedicine bill that’s a win for Texas consumers, a win for Texas patients and a win for Texas providers alike,” Price said at a news conference this week about health priorities.
That bill goes hand-in-glove with House Bill 5. It creates a broadband internet office that will develop a plan to address the state’s high-speed internet needs. Price highlights that millions of Texans don’t have good enough internet to get through a virtual appointment. Both bills have bipartisan support.
“We can develop great telehealth policies right now through legislation like House Bill 4,” Price said, “but they won’t truly be as effective as we want them to be if we don’t have the ‘tele’ part of the telehealth equation.”
Back at the TTUHSC’s Free Clinic, student leader Chugh said they plan to keep some telemedicine elements even after they start to see more patients in person.
“Obviously there are huge benefits to telemedicine and we don’t want to discount those,” Chugh said. “We want to reach as many patients as far as they are that we can.”
Still, the future physician looks forward to physically checking out patients.
"All of us here want to interact with patients.That’s why we want to be doctors," Chugh said. "But I’ve realized over time that you can still establish a connection with people."
Chugh knows the “web-side” manners she’s learned this year will also work outside of Zoom exam rooms.
Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.
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