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Experts, leaders discuss access to telehealth in Appalachia

Published: Mar. 31, 2021 at 6:28 PM EDT
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - Telehealth isn’t a new concept, but many health and government experts think the COVID-19 pandemic made a lot more people aware of it.

In general, officials with WVU Medicine Camden Clark in Parkersburg said WVU Medicine handled about 15,000 telehealth visits in 2019. In the past year, that number jumped to nearly 280,000.

Experts say telehealth is a broad term referring to the use of technology by medical professionals to communicate with patients. It includes simply talking to the doctor on the phone, along with more-complicated techniques like connecting through a web service to video chat.

Some doctors think being able to at least meet face to face over a video call makes a difference in how they can treat a patient. However, in a region known for its slow internet, what future does telehealth have in Appalachia?

“Overall, it is actually going to improve our delivery of healthcare particularly in rural areas, particularly in Appalachia,” said Dr. Walter Kerschl, chief medical officer at WVU Medicine Camden Clark.

Kerschl said telemedicine has already helped medical professionals engage patients with chronic illnesses. There is potential to do more, while making things more convenient for patients, he said.

In the more-urban and suburban parts of the Mid-Ohio Valley, experts agree access to telehealth services has helped some people avoid long drives to see a doctor or get other care.

“I’ve done a face to face, like a Zoom call, to Cleveland Clinic,” Wood County Commission President Blair Couch said. “That was really cool. I didn’t have to drive three and a half hours up to see a specialist.”

However, not everyone has access to broadband internet that gives them an opportunity to meet virtually with a doctor.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, whose 6th U.S. Congressional District in Ohio includes most of Washington County and a huge chunk of the state’s Appalachian region, said broadband access is the issue he hears about the most.

“I had a specific case back here during the height of the pandemic,” Johnson said. “A cancer doctor that had fiber all the way up to his driveway, but did not have the connection inside of his home in order to treat his oncology patients, those patients who were going through chemotherapy through telehealth. They’re some of the most vulnerable patients in the world.”

That doctor ended up getting connected, Johnson said, but others haven’t been as lucky.

Officials with Memorial Health System said telehealth grew exponentially during the pandemic. One of the system’s primary-care physicians said some patients go to extra lengths to meet virtually.

“We have had some patients who had to go to a son or daughter’s house in order to get access,” Dr. Caitlyn Santer said. “Sometimes with those patients during the pandemic, we were able to do some telemedicine visits over the phone, and we did have some instances where that’s the only way we could connect with our patients. And it was certainly less ideal, but it’s what we had to do. We have a pretty broad radius that we serve and some patients just don’t have access to Wi-Fi and didn’t know anyone that did.”

Where there’s a problem, there are people trying to solve it.

Just a few months ago, Ohio Lt. Gov. Governor Jon Husted announced the end of Phase One for a pilot project expanding broadband access in the nearby Switzerland of Ohio Local School District. Officials said that project gave students greater access to mental-health services.

“When I talked to the counselors there, they told me they could reach three to four times as many students through telehealth as they could through their old system,” Husted said. adding that the model used in Monroe County could easily be expanded elsewhere in Ohio.

In West Virginia, Sen. Shelly Moore Capito said there is money flowing from the federal government, and it’s time to invest it in broadband.

“We just did a major auction here in the state on underserved areas in rural America, which is going to deploy broadband to hundreds of thousands of West Virginians,” she said. “We just need to capitalize on the opportunity, we need to make sure we don’t waste the resources.”

As elected leaders work for improved broadband access in rural America, Kerschl said health experts also have a role to play.

“As leaders in medicine we really have to start advocating for more broadband access, particularly in rural areas,” Kerschl said. “Because this will truly help us manage our patients who don’t have good access or transportation to health care they desperately need.”

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