COVID-19 precautions and quarantine efforts have raised concerns for some patients about coming to a doctor’s office or a hospital but putting your health care needs on hold can worsen many conditions and end up increasing the risk of contracting the virus.
Maintaining good health is among the best defenses a patient has for reducing the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. Regular checkups, immunizations and periodic medical tests are essential to protect your health. To reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections, Cayuga Health System and the practices in the Cayuga Health Partners network began a series of improvements when the virus first appeared in our community in March. New protocols and technology at these medical offices, Cayuga Medical Center and Schuyler Hospital make for a safer environment than patients will likely find in any other setting.
What are some changes medical offices have made to protect patient health?
When patients call to make an appointment, they are asked about symptoms, recent travel and encounters with other people that may indicate a risk of COVID infection. At many of our practices in the Cayuga Health Partners network, symptomatic patients are seen via Telehealth sessions instead of having an office visit, and appointments are staggered to minimize contact with other patients and office staff.
When arriving for in-person appointments, patients call the reception desk from their cell phones while outside the office, or even from their car. Patients are notified when their provider is ready for the appointment and are re-screened at the door for potential symptoms and personal exposure to the virus and given a temperature check. Office waiting rooms and standard check-in desks have essentially been eliminated to minimize face-to-face contact with staff. Physicians, nurses and other staff in the medical office wear masks throughout the day, and many also wear face shields. Exam and procedure rooms are cleaned and disinfected after each visit. Future appointments and payment are arranged by phone or through a patient’s portal website as opposed to traditional ‘check-out’ areas.
When should a patient make a Telehealth appointment rather than an office appointment?
Patients who are ill or have COVID-19 symptoms can use Telehealth as opposed to a traditional in-office visit for the first point of contact. It is possible – even preferable, in the midst of a pandemic – for a provider to assess a ‘sick’ patient via Telehealth, but occasionally a patient will then be referred to a higher level of service such as Convenient Care or the Cayuga Medical Center Emergency Room if deemed necessary. Many routine appointments can also be accomplished effectively via Telehealth, including consults to review lab tests or imaging studies. And, at least for now, the major insurance companies are covering Telehealth visits, including those done by phone.
When should a patient NOT use Telehealth?
Never use Telehealth or Patient Portals for urgent or acute conditions, including but not limited to chest pains, shortness of breath, seizures, head or neck injuries, loss of or blurred vision, severe bleeding, loss of consciousness, burns, or high, uncontrolled fever – the kinds of symptoms that may indicate a life-threatening medical emergency. Call 911 immediately; fear should never create a barrier to receiving emergency medical services. Our hospitals are safe, operational and prepared to handle health emergencies as well as coronavirus cases.
What special equipment is needed for a Telehealth appointment?
Patients must have internet access, a smart phone, tablet, or computer with audio and video/webcam functions, and a browser such as Chrome, Safari, or Firefox. Call your provider’s office first if you’re interested in arranging a Telehealth appointment - an initial assessment of the health issue needs to be made to be sure that Telehealth is appropriate for the person’s health needs, and also to determine if the proper technological tools are in place for such a visit. Some offices will offer telephone visits if appropriate, but these kind of Telehealth visits do not provide visual contact between a physician and patient, which may make them less effective and can reduce a patient’s understanding of medical instructions. In-office or video visits, in general, improve the communication between a practitioner and patient more than those accomplished solely by phone.
Dr. Lloyd A. Darlow is Vice President for Clinical Integration at Cayuga Medical Center and President of the Cayuga Area Physicians Alliance. He is Board certified in Family Medicine and is in practice with Family Medicine Associates of Ithaca.