Health centers provide care to the most vulnerable

From the Herald Bulletin

Local community health centers have responded to the COIVD-19 pandemic by ramping up telehealth while seeing patients who couldn’t be cared for remotely and retooling operations to keep patients and staff safe.

Meridian Health Services went from an average of 32 telehealth visits a day in April 2019 to 1,100 a day in April 2020, according to numbers cited by Hank Milius, president and CEO, in a recent column.

“We never completely shut down, even from the beginning, but we moved quickly to either telehealth or using Zoom,” said Mike Casuscelli, practice manager for Meridian in Madison County.

While telehealth is safer during the pandemic, it presents new challenges for providers.

“That’s the hardest thing that you don’t get to see them, is really trying to decide what it is that is the affliction,” said Cynthia Branson, family nurse practitioner for Meridian.

Before the shutdown, Aspire Indiana Health was averaging seven telehealth appointments a day. Within 10 business days it was up to an average of 725 a day.

Aspire had been using telehealth for years, but insurance required that the patient be at an Aspire facility while the provider could be somewhere else.

In response to COVID-19, health insurance plans now allow both the doctor and patient to connect remotely with each other from home.

Aspire President and CEO Barbara Scott thinks that change could become permanent.

“We’re actually now reaching people that we were not able to reach before because they weren’t able to get here,” she said. “It will just be another tool we can use to reach people for care.”

But not all patients can be seen remotely.

“I can’t listen to somebody’s lungs over the phone,” said Patti Smith, a nurse practitioner with Aspire.

The practice stayed open three days a week for those patients, who were first screened and seen while still in their cars, if deemed necessary.

Smith was on vacation when the shutdown hit in March. As a mother, she felt anxiety about returning to work. But those worries quickly dropped away.

“This is what I do. I know this job, I know how to be a nurse,” Smith said. “So for me, I’ve not been nervous.”

While most Aspire staffers have been able to work from home, nurse practitioners, nurses, medical assistants and group home staff continue to work from an office base.

“That’s why we call them the heroes,” Scott said. “Because they are still patient-facing, client-facing, in-person services all throughout this COVID-19 experience.”

Aspire operates several group homes. The goal was to make them the safest place to be, according to Scott.

“We’ve had zero incidents, because we basically bring everything to them,” she said.

Meridian Health Services, in partnership with IU Health, is offering COVID-19 testing at its location along Ohio Avenue.

Patients are given an assessment over the phone to determine whether they meet requirements to be tested. When they arrive, the test is administered in the parking lot.

Meridian has fully reopened but is letting patients decide whether to come into the office or schedule a telehealth visit. Aspire was scheduled to open on May 26 but will not be accepting walk-in patients.

Both health centers screen patients as they arrive, checking their temperature, asking a series of questions and giving them a mask if they don’t have one. They’ve also made changes to waiting rooms to maintain social distancing.

The Jane Pauley Community Health Center did not respond to an interview request for this story.