Telehealth's role expanding in disaster, ER relief efforts

We reported a few weeks ago on telehealth finding new utility in healthcare, completely apart from the usual physician-to-patient video-conference.

Nearly two months later, telehealth's evolution continues apace. Two intriguing uses for the technology, indicating its use is widening and it's applications may reach far beyond the patient bedside, include:

1. Providing counseling to disaster victims via telehealth. When what's being called one of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history struck Joplin, Mo., in late May, it left an unexpected need it its wake--psychiatric counseling. Calls to the local crisis hotline more than tripled in the six weeks month after the twister touched down.

Psychiatrists at the University of Missouri School of Medicine announced last week they're stepping in to help, but with a twist. They're providing free counseling services to residents using telehealth technology, rather than in-person sessions, according to a report from CBS St. Louis.

Counselors are treating about 20 residents each week for anxiety, depression and other problems as they struggle to cope with losing loved ones and jobs, as well as other financial hardship, CBS reports.

One unusual challenge to the usual telepsychiatry approach is that many of these patients don't have ongoing mental health problems, and some have never received prior psychiatric services, hospital officials tell CBS. The assumption is that many will have a blend of psychiatric and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

"These patients are from all walks of life and all ages. Many of them never had mental health problems or had their problems under control before the tornado," John Lauriello, chair of the university's psychiatry department, tells CBS.

2. Using telehealth to triage emergencies. Administrators at Sensenbrenner Hospital in Ontario, Canada, finally have lost their patience with patients who use the ER for non-emergency needs.

Frank Empey, assistant administrator of nursing services, tells the Northern Times that a majority of patients who present at the ER in the evenings do not need emergency attention. Often, they're trying to obtain non-emergency services, such as prescription refills.

The hospital finally had enough this month, and sent out a news release directing patients to call the Ontario Telehealth nurse hotline before heading for the ER. Nurses there are available 24 hours a day, and are authorized to help patients triage their symptoms, and determine if they truly need emergent care.

"If you're not sure if it is an emergency, call Telehealth," was Empey's cheeky guidance to Ontario residents.

It'll be interesting to see how much traction their new initiative gets--and how many unneeded ER visits are avoided.

To learn more:
- read the CBS St. Louis story
- check out this coverage on Missourinet's website
- get more detail on the ER triage program from the Northern Times

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