As Iredell Health System uses innovative telehealth technology to narrow health disparities in the rural communities it serves, its physician network is working to make sure individuals in those areas have access to healthcare even during pandemic conditions. Doing so just got easier thanks to a grant of close to $150K from the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation’s (NCHF) COVID-19 “Fill the Gap” Response Fund.
The Iredell Physician Network serves patients in impoverished rural areas across Iredell and neighboring counties, where many are at a higher risk of contracting and experiencing complications from COVID-19. As providers see these patients face-to-face less frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are often missing the patients’ up-to-date vitals.
The grant will allow Iredell providers to place 50 remote patient monitoring units in high-risk patients’ homes, allowing healthcare providers the ability to closely monitor patient vitals, bolster their understanding of patient conditions, make necessary adjustments to treatment, and ultimately reduce the risk of complications and hospitalizations before they arise. The grant will also enhance patients’ access to their care teams through video visits and daily sharing of vitals.
Remote patient monitoring will help facilitate telehealth visits for high-risk patients in rural areas where travel, finances, and risks associated with COVID-19 make in-person provider visits difficult. For rural residents far from healthcare providers who often lack reliable transportation, the program will increase patients’ access to receive the medical care they need while decreasing potential exposure to the virus.
“The Fill the Gap Response Fund was formed to support North Carolina’s people and places disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” said Julia Wacker, senior vice president of the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation. “The pandemic has exacerbated health and economic challenges already present in rural communities and vulnerable populations around the state. They are often hit harder and take longer to recover.”
NCHF’s grant and Iredell Physician Network’s program, combined with new telecommunications technology, represent a historic development in rural healthcare — providers and their high-risk patients’ are collectively embracing telehealth that allows patients to control their chronic conditions remotely and in a timely manner.
Rather than leaving their physician’s office with a unit to figure out and set up on their own, the physician network is partnering with Iredell Home Health — a nonprofit agency that provides home healthcare to homebound people of all ages and already uses a remote patient monitoring program — to teach patients how to use the equipment inside their homes. Patients will be ready to participate in the program with an assembled unit they are trained to comfortably use within their home when they leave their provider’s office — each equipped with a Wi-Fi-capable 4g tablet with video capabilities, a blood pressure monitor, a weight scale, and a pulse oximeter.
The equipment aims to help patients in rural areas who oftentimes have minimal access to internet connectivity, video-capable communication devices, or in-home vital monitoring systems. The tablet collects and transmits vital patient information with the Iredell care team, who then reviews and tracks the information and as necessary communicates with patients and shares it with providers who can determine treatment.
When COVID-19 arrived, Iredell Physician Network immediately implemented telehealth as an innovative solution for patients to continue receiving care. By using the “Fill the Gap” Response Fund to expand its telehealth to vulnerable populations in underserved areas, the physician network is further empowered to ensure that none of its patients are left behind during a population health emergency.
“Our team is constantly seeking innovative ways to meet patients where they are to deliver the care they need,” said Carla Johnson, Iredell Physician Network’s director of operations. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, many patients fear contracting the virus while doing what was once considered routine. High-risk patients with chronic disease need follow-ups with their providers now more than ever. Enabling them to remain in their homes while delivering daily, real-time reporting of health status and video conferencing is a huge win for all.”
Iredell practices are actively evaluating patients to determine who would benefit from participation in the remote patient monitoring program, specifically those managing multiple chronic conditions. For more information on the Iredell Physician Network, visit www.iredellphysiciannetwork.com.
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