Telehealth Blooms in Disaster Zones

Current advances and expansion of telehealth services couldn’t have come at a better time. Telehealth advocates and healthcare providers credit the technology for helping to provide much needed services to people living in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. The telehealth infrastructure that was in place before the devastating storms hit allowed providers and telehealth vendors to provide consultations for free, all while demonstrating telehealth’s current and future benefits.

“I think that there are always these occasions where people recognize the power of a new technology and I think this is going to be one of those occasions for telemedicine,” Sylvia Romm, MD, the medical director at American Well, a telemedicine provider, told FierceHealthcare.

The publication also noted that while telehealth has begun to be taken more seriously in the medical community, it’s not “ingrained in the public consciousness” yet.

In the wake of Harvey, telehealth advocates noted that telehealth providers can easily treat disaster-related conditions such as bites from bees, fire ants, or mosquitoes, wounds or rashes that become infected by floodwaters, or refill medications that may have been lost due to flooding. But the health implications of disasters aren’t just physical. The prospect of losing one’s home and livelihood has mental health implications that experts hope telehealth can help manage.

“The accessibility of medical and mental health services via victims’ smartphones cannot be understated,” Nathaniel Lacktman, a partner and chair of the telemedicine industry team at Foley & Lardner, told Fierce. “For millions of people, the smartphone is their lifeline and can serve as the tether to reach doctors and medical professionals, even when the local power lines are down.”

After Harvey ravaged the Houston, TX area, telehealth providers in the path of Hurricane Irma looked to capitalize on the success of telehealth in Texas and made their services free to Floridians. Florida-based Nemours Children’s Health System partnered with telemedicine companies to provide free consultations in Florida just like it had in Texas.

“Children do not wait for the storm to pass and the roads to clear to get sick, it can happen at any time. Now Nemours CareConnect will be there to help at no cost to families,” Carey Officer, administrator of telehealth for Nemours Children’s Health System, said in a press release.

It’s currently unclear if Puerto Rico, which was heavily damaged last week by Hurricane Maria, is capable of receiving the same kinds of services that were made available in Texas and Florida. With most of the island still without electricity, forging the telecommunications connections required for telehealth is a challenge.

According to CNN, hospital generators are running out of the diesel that powers them, endangering individuals on ventilators. CNN has also reported that AT&T is bringing in “floating antennas” to help connect Puerto Ricans.

Mary Butler is the associate editor at The Journal of AHIMA.

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