COVID-19: Telehealth for All

COVID-19: Telehealth for All

Children’s hospitals have expanded their telehealth offerings in the face of the pandemic. The next challenge is ensuring everyone can benefit from the technology.

Meeting the challenges of COVID-19, children's hospitals took agility to new heights-instantly thinking and working in new ways out of necessity. It didn't take long for changes to start driving efficiencies, enhancing care and improving experiences for staff, patients and families. That's why many adjustments the pandemic has brought to children's hospitals will be here to stay even in a post-COVID world.

In the summer issue of Children's Hospitals Today, we took a closer look at eight ways children's hospitals are improving outcomes-now and into the future-with innovations born out of the pandemic response. Here's a sneak peek into those glimmers of hope: how one children's hospital is working to improve access to advancements in telehealth.

New technology, same old barriers

Robert Ball calls it a sobering reality.

"You would like to think that e-health would level the playing field as far as access to people who may be socio-economically disadvantaged," says Ball, M.D., medical director of eHealth at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston and professor, Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children's Hospital. "But some of the same barriers, such as transportation and cost of travel, are equally present when it comes to technology."

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created an immediate surge in demand for telehealth services, and children's hospitals across the country answered the call by ramping up their capabilities to see patients virtually-Texas Children's, for example, went from about 20 telehealth visits daily before the pandemic to more than 2,000 a day after COVID-19 struck. But the benefits of those tremendous strides in telehealth access haven't spread out equally among the hospital's patient population.

"The ability to access good internet connectivity can be a challenge, as can the type of devices, the cost of data minutes and things like that," Ball says. "To eliminate that and truly level the playing field with this opportunity is something we're passionate about."

Private Wi-Fi, free devices could be part of solution

Ball and his team at Texas Children's aren't waiting for COVID-19 to subside to begin working on the problem. They're examining their patient database to see which patients aren't using telehealth services and to try to determine potential reasons why, including neighborhood location. "Once we identify some trends, we can look at how to overcome them," says Paola Alvarez-Malo, vice president of innovation at Texas Children's. "Ultimately, we need to just make it easier to connect."

Alvarez-Malo adds that Texas Children's has amazing partners in its philanthropic and vendor networks to help it reach that goal-and it already has some ambitious ideas for increasing access.

"I don't think it's a stretch to think maybe Texas Children's is going to have its own Wi-Fi network in certain areas of town to enable connectivity or providing certain patients with devices to allow them to have better care," Ball says. "Down the road, you're going to be able to write a prescription for a device, and the insurance company is going to pay for that because they realize it's going to be better than having those patients go to the ER and running up big bills."

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