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Pandemic Compels Texans to Get up to Speed on Telehealth

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It took T’Shaunda Davis only 15 minutes to get the medicine she needed for her sore throat. She took a picture, sent it to her provider using an app on her phone and had a quick conversation with the doctor.

“It was fast and easy,” said the 50-year-old from Fort Worth. The hard part was getting a good picture of her throat, she said.

Davis is one of many Texans using telemedicine for the first time. The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an era of telehealth, as older adults have sheltered in place, avoiding in-person visits for fear of exposure.

Within a month of the March stay-at-home order by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), the Austin Regional Clinic—which serves nearly 500,000 clients with 340 doctors across 27 locations—converted more than half of its visits to telemedicine appointments, said Manish Naik, M.D., the clinic’s chief medical information officer.

“We saw some initial reluctance from patients,” Naik said, but they quickly got on board, as did his medical staff. Within 10 days, Naik had trained all the doctors on the necessary technology and best practices for telemedicine.

Gaps in access

While some are getting up to speed on telehealth, others are being left behind. The pandemic has underscored disparities in the state’s access to health care and high-speed internet.

The Federal Communications Commission notes that 2 million Texas households lack internet access, and an estimated 14 million don’t have connections fast enough to support telemedicine, according to a Microsoft study.

“With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s even more important that all Texans have access to health care, regardless of where they live,” said Blake Hutson, AARP Texas advocacy director. “For many people, especially in rural areas, seeing a health professional happens easiest through telehealth.”

AARP has worked with the Texas Legislature to pass bills that would extend access to broadband around the state. Additionally, an AARP Texas advocacy volunteer, Kenny Scudder, 67, of Odessa, is part of the 17-member Governor’s Broadband Development Council, charged with finding ways to identify barriers and solutions to expanding coverage.

Providers frequently say that another major hurdle to the wider acceptance of telemedicine has been insurers’ resistance to paying providers the same amounts for virtual consultations as they do for in-person visits, said Nora Belcher, executive director of the Texas e-Health Alliance.

For many rural community hospitals, telemedicine is a lifeline, said John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

With the technology, rural hospitals don’t have to worry about attracting high-paying specialty doctors and personnel. For example, four facilities that don’t need a full-time dietitian could easily share one using telemedicine, Henderson said.

Local emergency room staff can call on ER-certified physicians for help and guidance or even request additional staff to manage patient charts and other coordination tasks in high-volume situations.

Telemedicine could also allow hospitals to provide services to the roughly 50 Texas counties that don’t have a medical clinic or hospital, Henderson said. “The great thing about telemedicine is, it doesn’t care what your zip code is.”

Katie Pohlman is a writer living in Dallas.

More on Telehealth

Utilizing Telehealth for Caregiving in Rural Areas

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