Kris Torres didn’t know what to expect when she called CHOC Children’s COVID-19 hotline on March 26. Her 17-year-old son, Nolan, began having intense stomach pain and was vomiting the night before, and she could tell by the look on his face that this was not a typical case of the flu. She knew he needed immediate care but wasn’t sure he would be able to get it in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.
Her fears were immediately eased when the nurse who answered patched her through to Dr. Lori Openshaw for a Zoom video call. “She walked us through how to examine Nolan while she was on video,” Kris explains. “She was able to guide me very specifically where to apply pressure on his abdomen while she observed his reactions and facial expressions. She suspected it was appendicitis and told us to prepare to head to CHOC while she made preparations for our arrival. Ten minutes later, she called back with directions on how to pull up to the ER because their protocol had changed due to the coronavirus.”
When Kris and Nolan arrived at the hospital, they were greeted with the compassion and efficiency they had come to know at CHOC Children’s. Nolan has been a patient at CHOC since 2006, so they knew he would receive outstanding care. They weren’t disappointed. “They were able to get him into an ultrasound and a CT scan right away, and in less than 12 hours he was in surgery,” Kris says. “The thing that struck us was the difference in protocol from a normal ER visit. Nolan has primary immunodeficiency, which puts him in a very high-risk group for COVID-19, so they kept him far away from anyone in the ER. That was impressive and reassuring.”
TELEHEALTH COMES OF AGE
The telehealth system began at CHOC about five years ago, and its initial focus was on making its expertise available to other hospitals. Several machines were deployed at hospitals in the region, whereby doctors in those facilities could contact the telehealth team and get a consultation for critically ill kids before transporting them to CHOC. However, use of the system was mixed, since many doctors preferred the old-school method of picking up a regular telephone.
Two years ago, however, CHOC decided to make telehealth available to patients and families. “We changed our focus to going directly to consumers,” says Dr. Michael Weiss, CHOC Children’s vice president of Population Health. “If a patient saw a doctor in the office and the doctor wanted them to see a gastroenterologist, they could be given the opportunity to do that appointment via the telehealth platform, if it was appropriate.”
The telehealth system has become increasingly popular with patients and families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. From last July to March 15, there were 152 telehealth visits. Since the lockdown began, there have been approximately 18,000 visits. Currently, the CHOC team is conducting 650 telehealth visits per day.
The system is also becoming more popular with physicians. Prior to the lockdown, eight doctors were participating. Since then, 350 doctors have come aboard. “Some doctors are hesitant as they prefer the traditional way to provide a visit, and in some cases they’re right. Not every visit is appropriate for telehealth,” Dr. Weiss explains.
But for those cases that are appropriate—such as minor ailments, care coordination, consultations and wellness checks for at-risk youth—telehealth can be a boon. In the age of Zoom meetings, a telehealth care team can include a physician, a nurse coordinator, a social worker or therapist, and even a pharmacist. Each can conduct their part of a telehealth visit in a private breakout room, which increases efficiency and saves time.
And, in some cases, telehealth can save lives. Just ask Nolan, who has a long history with CHOC as a patient and as an advocate. The former CHOC Walk ambassador often speaks at CHOC events, and he even started a club at his high school to raise awareness about the hospital among his peers.
“I feel like I owe my whole life to this hospital, so there’s nothing you can do to repay someone saving your life,” he says. “But, you can do as much as you can to bring that light in front of other people and let them know what CHOC is about and what they do for children.” Nolan says he would like to become a pediatric physical therapist and one day work at CHOC Children’s. Thanks to telehealth, he will get that chance.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
As for the future of telehealth, Dr. Weiss would like to expand access to those who may not be able to afford the technology required. “It would be great if we could provide certain families with devices and/or internet access so they can use telehealth,” he explains. “It would be especially useful for kids with chronic health issues. Getting eyes on them more often would potentially improve the quality of care they receive. Also, there are devices that can be plugged into cell phones and tablets that can check things like oxygen saturation and heart rate. New technology can give doctors critical information on a patient without actually having to be there.”
The telehealth system has a 91 percent satisfaction rate from patients and families. Your gift makes its success possible and helps to create more happy outcomes like Nolan’s. Please continue your support of CHOC Children’s by making a new gift today.