The plans were already underway at Akron Children's Hospital to incorporate some telehealth care options for its single-ventricle patient population before the pandemic arrived. The hospital never planned to make its Cardiac LIFT (Lifelong Interventions Focused on Thriving) Clinic exclusively virtual, but it was so successful during the pandemic that it shelved plans for a hybrid program.
“Honestly, it was a bit of a surprise to us,” says Kathyrn Wheller, APRN, clinical lead of LIFT Single Ventricle Multidisciplinary Clinic at Akron Children’s in Ohio. “But seeing patients in their home environment has been enlightening to us as providers—there's no question.”
Akron Children’s launched the all-virtual multidisciplinary clinic—the first of its kind nationally, according to the hospital—in January 2021. While the patient’s primary cardiologist still conducts physical exams and tests in person, the Cardiac LIFT Clinic provides a wide range of virtual care, including:
- Evaluations for developmental, cognitive or behavioral issues.
- Speech and nutrition experts to monitor patient growth, oral feeding skills, tube feeds and speech delay.
- An adult congenital nurse to guide young adults and their families on a broad range of health care topics, including the transition process from pediatric to adult congenital care.
- Support and assistance accessing community resources via social workers from the hospital’s Heart Center.
Central to the clinic’s focus is addressing the neuropsychological concerns often associated with the single-ventricle patient population.
“If we anticipate those issues and screen for them early, we can intervene early and help these kids truly thrive,” Wheller says. “The focus of the multi-disciplinary care is moving away from just surviving to thriving.”
Virtual component aids families and providers
The all-virtual clinic provides convenience for patients and their families, who typically juggle multiple appointments with specialists. With virtual care, parents can see the entire care team in one visit from their home.
The response from the community has been overwhelming. “We've heard a ton of feedback from parents,” Wheller says. “It has been humbling to hear just how grateful they are.”
The virtual visits have been helpful for the care team as well. Clinicians gain a better understanding of a patient's daily life by seeing them in their home environment. The virtual clinic also allows clinicians to work even if they are not feeling well enough to go into the office. “I actually had COVID a couple of weeks ago and still did clinic,” Wheller says. “I would've had to cancel that had I not been able to do it virtually.”
Standardized care for single-ventricle patients
Perhaps the biggest impact of the Cardiac LIFT Clinic, according to Wheller, is the standardization of care for this medically complex patient population. “It’s been incredibly helpful to get multiple perspectives on the patient to make sure we're not missing any of the pieces of the puzzle,” she says. “The care these patients get within our own heart center has become more comprehensive, and the benefit to the patient is huge—but it's also beneficial to us as providers to make sure we're not all working in our own silos, and we're working together to achieve the best outcomes.”