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Telehealth can help flatten the curve for coronavirus

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University researchers launched a pilot program that uses technology to provide health care remotely with the end goal of keeping patients from returning to a hospital or entering a long-term care facility, and even possibly reducing the impact of the novel coronavirus.

WVU’s School of Public Health, School of Nursing, School of Medicine and West Virginia Bureau for Medical Services have teamed up to enroll 30 rural West Virginians from across the state in the six-month program, No Place Like Home: Testing Out Telehealth. The program, which so far as one participant, should be full and underway later this spring.

“The goal is to provide services at home that a nursing home would provide,” said registered nurse, Jennifer Mallow, School of Nursing associate professor who is part of the project and its spokesperson.

To qualify, a person must receive services through Medicaid “traumatic brain injury,” or “aged and disabled” waiver programs. They must also have been recently discharged from a long-term care facility like a nursing home, or in-patient rehabilitation center, WVU said.

Through the use of technology at the program participant’s home, health care professionals in a hospital miles away can monitor the patient for such things as blood pressure, blood sugar fluctuations, pain and shortness of breath. The patient may be given an interactive hub or a tablet device to send in test results, which are then read by the provider.

Mallow said the patients are shown how to test themselves in their homes. If a result from a self-administered test is abnormal, a health professional would call the patient and offer advice on the next step to take. Or, the participant can simply be reminded to take medication.

“We know that telehealth does things like reduce health care costs and reduce ER visits, but it also makes nurses more accessible to patients and creates an opportunity for an adequate amount of care with fewer nurses,” Mallow said. “There’s a massive nationwide nursing shortage right now. With telehealth, we’re actually able to spend more time with patients. Time that would otherwise be spent traveling or charting or running from one patient to another onsite.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rural Americans are more likely than their urban counterparts to die early from heart disease, cancer, an unintentional injury, stroke or a chronic lower respiratory disease. It also keeps someone who is elderly, needs health care, and lives miles from a hospital, from driving a great distance to seek medical help.

“Here’s a case scenario,” said Mallow, explaining how No Place Like Home works. “There is a 73-year-old woman in a nursing home, but she wants to live at home. She had a stroke two years ago and qualifies for the aged and disabled waiver. She needs help with hygiene. She can feed herself, but uses a catheter.”

The patient, Mallow said, also has high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

“The woman is able to bathe, but needs help getting in and out of the shower. She also needs assistance with her medication, housework and can’t drive.”

Under the Take Me Home program, the patient would get a transition coordinator as well as an in-house health care worker, Mallow said.

By checking in with health care providers every day, rather than waiting weeks between visits, program participants may be able to address any health problems as they arise. This way, program participants can avoid emergency room visits.

“We will be able to identify patterns for chronic conditions and follow-up on any missing remote check-ins,” she said. “The point of the program is to prevent the worsening of the condition through good health care.”

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