‘New ways to reach people’: Experts discuss adapting to online health care during COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the health care industry to adapt in many ways, but experts say telehealth is likely to stay a part of providing care even after the pandemic.

Four health care experts spoke about their experiences switching over to telehealth services and offered their insight on the subject during a livestream from the “Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19” series Monday. The talk was moderated by David Lindeman, director of health for the campus Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.

All of the panelists said, for them, the transition away from providing in-person care was sudden and has come with major challenges in providing care.

“What we have noticed in the past two months is a tremendous change in the way we use technology in this space, particularly in terms of telehealth,” Lindeman said during the event. “Our University of California campuses have seen a literally 1,000% increase in the amount of telehealth. We’re seeing new ways to reach people at their homes and in their communities.”

Panelists Elaine Khoong, a UCSF assistant professor of medicine, and Heather Ladov, a social worker at Oakland’s La Clínica, which provides low-cost health care to mostly Latinx people, both said they tried video calls with patients. Ultimately, because of technological challenges, issues of equity and access and a general aversion to video, however, phone calls have been more effective for them.

Khoong said, in her practice, this has ultimately led the number of missed appointments to decrease and allowed her to reach patients with mobility issues or who live farther away more regularly and easily.

She added that she still thinks video calling is a better appointment method, with the exception of equity and access issues, and all panelists agreed that making high-speed internet a utility and more easily accessible would facilitate doctors’ abilities to offer services.

Another way to increase access and equity in telehealth services, according to UCSF associate professor Courtney Lyles and UC Berkeley associate professor Adrian Aguilera, is to expand education regarding how to use the technology and to offer tutorials, especially for the older population and those with language barriers.

Aguilera said the most important thing, however, is to make sure that health care providers maintain relationships with their clients.

“It’s not technology first,” Aguilera said during the event. “It’s people first, and technology enables those relationships.”

Ladov and Aguilera said mental health care has been a particular challenge for telehealth, especially for reaching people with depression, schizophrenia and thought disorders.

Aguilera added that he has been trying to figure out how to encourage depressed individuals to exercise and leave their houses while also maintaining physical distancing and low exposure to the disease.

“The genie is out of the bottle; we have to do this,” Aguilera said during the event. “The reality is that in some form or another, this is going to continue to be the norm, so we have to find ways to make this work.”

Kate Finman is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.