Telehealth is about the distribution of health-related services and information through electronic means and telecommunication technologies, facilitating long distance patient-to-clinician contact and care. One such provider of innovative telehealth services is Health Wagon.
The aim of Health Wagon is to provide quality health care to the medically underserved people in the Mountains of Appalachia.
To understand how a telehealth service works and the benefits it can deliver, we spoke with Teresa Gardner Tyson, who is the Executive Director of The Health Wagon.
Digital Journal: Teresa, what do you see as the main challenges facing healthcare today?
Teresa Gardner Tyson: In our area, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) didn’t really help the people we serve, and the ongoing political climate has made affordable access to health care more important than ever before. We are using every dollar we raise to fill the gap left by a still devastated economy and a lack of health care providers. On top of all this, outdated regulations in some states continue to create barriers for NPs to practice, making it harder for patients to get the care they need.
DJ: What are the advantages of telehealth in general?
Tyson: Telehealth technology allows our patients to interact with specialists at the University of Virginia (UVA) Health System, including pulmonologists, radiologists, cardiologists and more, and receive urgently needed care. These patients might not have the resources to travel to a distant location. In the past, we’ve used telehealth to connect with specialists to cover specific health needs, ensuring our patients access to the care they need to get on the road to recovery. If a problem has been identified and they need to be seen right away, we can help them get to the specific provider to address their health needs. Even with health insurance, specialty services are scarce, usually requiring a two to three hour drive, so making use of these kinds of technologies enables us to help more and more patients.
DJ: What are the advantages for rural areas in particular?
Tyson: Because there is such a massive shortage of health care providers and specialists, especially in the rural areas where we operate, telehealth allows patients to speak with providers and specialists who can address their needs then and there. Telehealth allows our patients to have access to some of the best specialist and subspecialists in the nation – all without leaving their community. It saves a 12 hour commute to UVA health systems in Charlottesville and sometimes an overnight stay. It saves money and time for all involved all while the patient receives extraordinary care.”
DJ: You’ve mentioned how your services can help with the opioid crisis, please can you expand on this?
Tyson: Since we service seven of the poorest counties in Virginia and are a known entity in the communities we serve, we feel we are well equipped to assist with this crisis. Our team builds strong relationships with patients and their families, and they are willing to share information with us that is important to treating people struggling with opioids. There’s also no question that we are sometimes the shoulder families lean on as we partner with them to assist their loved one to get needed treatment and help.
In the event we have a critical need, such as a patient we suspect has overdosed, we have limited access to provide Narcan. We definitely do the absolute best we can with the resources provided to us, but we can also always use more help.
DJ: How have patients reacted to the service?
Tyson: Patients are excited by telehealth services because they address their immediate needs. Waiting around for simple answers or traveling long distances is not only inconvenient but comes with health risks. And, because of the lack of specialty care, specifically in our areas, patients really appreciate what we are able to provide to them and their families.
DJ: As well as patients, are there benefits for health care professionals?
Tyson: Yes, as a provider, I believe the use of telehealth gives us the best opportunity to meet the health care needs of our patients in their own community. We can support the continuum of care for patients and give them peace of mind. We can expand access to health care and specialists. And we can discuss on a professional basis the care our patients may require in the coming weeks, months, etc.
DJ: Are there any data security concerns?
Tyson: We have similar concerns to the general public when dealing with threats from hackers, phishing scams, etc. It’s mostly them requesting information to which they aren’t entitled. As the health care industry continues to move forward with better electronic record keeping, we also must ensure we are protecting patients’ privacy and remain in compliance with HIPAA laws.
DJ: What are your future expansion plans?
Tyson: We are beginning to start a capital fundraising campaign with the hope of raising $1 million for new facilities, equipment, etc. People can go to our website to donate and all that helps us expand access to quality NP-care and help us continue our mission.
DJ: What else are you working on?
Tyson: We are working to provide our patients with access to dental providers, because that has a big impact on a person’s health and wellbeing. And, we are actively seeking to recruit a dentist to take the helm at our Wise, VA location because he or she will have the complete set-up to help patients. If they could volunteer a day or two a week, this would go a long ways to help us meet the dental needs in region. And we can help to get those out of state providers that would want to help a temporary dental license. Other volunteers with any healthcare background are encouraged to help as well as lay volunteers but this is just one area we’re trying to expand upon.
DJ: What other areas of healthcare technology are of interest to you?
Tyson: The implementation of advanced telehealth diagnostic capabilities have the potential to significantly benefit patients. Additionally, the use of drones to deliver prescriptions to hard-to-reach areas can save lives and improve patient health.