Local doctors, patients participate in telehealth sessions during pandemic


Sandy Zimmerman needed to figure out why her eye looked infected.

The 76-year-old Columbus resident wasn’t able to meet with Dr. Cliff Brooks at Conner-Smith Eye Center in Seymour in person because of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic.

They went with the next-best option: Telehealth.

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Through FaceTime, Brooks was able to see Zimmerman and write a prescription to take care of her eye issue, which wound up being an eyelash follicle that got plugged.

“They were anticipating using this in their office, so I was very happy to be the guinea pig,” Zimmerman said, laughing. “I was the guinea pig, and it worked out wonderfully.”

For one, telehealth saved her an hour of traveling to and from an appointment. It also allowed her to practice social distancing and get the treatment she needed.

“If this telehealth was not available, I would have ended up in the ER or some other medical facility when I preferred to be with Dr. Brooks because he’s outstanding, to say the least,” she said.

Having been a nurse for 20 years and running a private practice in mental health counseling for 31½ years, Zimmerman knows the importance of receiving good medical care, and she was able to get that with Brooks through telehealth.

“Many people are concerned about privacy. I understand, but if they have an ailment that is of some concern, their choice is do they take the risk of going out in public into a prompt med clinic type of situation or do they sit in the privacy of their own home and have a chat or an appointment with their doctor,” she said. “To me, that’s a no-brainer. … To me, it sounds prudent to be able to do this from home. The biggest thing is being safe.”

Brooks was glad to see Zimmerman so happy and relieved to have that option.

“For the most part, it has been very helpful, although for many patients, it is still not without difficulty to set up the connection, and in some cases, we just can’t make it work,” he said of telehealth.

Keeping an eye on things

There previously were strict rules in place on what technology could be used for telehealth visits that it was nearly impossible to implement other than for younger and more tech-savvy patients, so most practices, including Conner-Smith Eye Center, did not invest the significant effort to implement it, Brooks said.

“These rules have been temporarily relaxed during this crisis, allowing us to use FaceTime, Zoom, Skype and most other platforms for these virtual appointments so that for folks that have this ability, we can for now offer that service, and we try to utilize a platform that they know they can use,” he said.

“So for those patients who should not get out but still have an eye question or condition that can be managed with a telemedicine visit, this technology has been great,” he said.

As a physician, he said the benefit has been twofold.

“What’s good for patients is good for me. It allows me to take care of less serious issues for patients before they become a big problem and more effectively triage and identify problems that do need to be managed in person,” he said.

“It is also currently a billable service,” he said. “Medical offices are businesses that rely on revenue from routine as well as urgent patient visits to stay viable. The quarantine has heavily impacted these revenue streams, causing many practices to close completely and lay off all their staff.”

Conner-Smith has had to shorten its hours of operation, but fortunately, thanks in part to telehealth visits, it’s able to continue to keep the lights on and provide care to patients, Brooks said.

“We are still seeing patients that we as their eye doctors know have urgent and time-sensitive conditions, so for those patients, we encourage them to keep their appointment in order to prevent vision loss,” he said.

“We are also sensitive to patients’ needs and concerns, so if a patient feels that they need to be seen, we make sure they are aware of these guidelines, screen them over the phone for symptoms, ask they bring and wear their own mask and reassure them that we are doing everything we can at our office to keep everyone safe,” he said.

The office has implemented vehicle telephone check-in to keep the waiting room empty. In some cases, care can be provided while people stay in their cars, such as eye pressure checks for glaucoma patients or a quick portable slit lamp exam in the parking lot.

“Our staff all wear masks, and every single one of them is vigilant, going above and beyond to clean and disinfect patient areas after each visit,” Brooks said. “We have an amazing team.”

Change is difficult, and some people resist it, but Brooks said the pandemic instantly applied severe pressure to make changes to the medical delivery system, and he hopes the good changes will stick.

“The ability to communicate with patients and loved ones with video has been great, and for families who are equipped to do that, it has been a blessing,” he said. “For those who help their older family members set up and learn to use a device for video calls, you may not only be helping them see their grandchildren and visit with family. You may also be helping them be able to connect with their doctors in a new and very valuable way.”

Family practice benefits, too

Dr. John Fye, one of six physicians at Family Medical Center in Seymour, said the practice has selectively postponed, kept, canceled and changed appointments.

Some patients have found postponing visits or doing virtual visits is more prudent.

“Some of our patients have serious health concerns, and simply not addressing their issues wouldn’t be in their best interest,” Fye said. “We need to continue to provide care to these patients to prevent them from falling ill from chronic disease and being admitted to the hospital.

“Some patients have been managed by phone contact and virtual visit with providers,” he said. “Some patients still require the in-person office visit to keep them on track. We also remain open to care for the acutely ill patients in our practice.”

Although telehealth has been a challenge, Fye said many patients have responded positively.

“The number of telehealth visits done at our practice continues to increase as patients and providers become more comfortable with the platform,” he said. “While the telehealth visit is not able to replace all face-to-face visits, it allows us to keep in contact with patients who are wisely avoiding as much public travel as possible.”

He encourages people to continue to focus on their personal health in all aspects during this challenging time.

“Exercise, normal sleep patterns and healthy eating continue to be important for us all,” Fye said. “Take the time you have to work toward a healthier lifestyle that you can carry forward once things return to normal.”

Staying in touch with family

Brooks also said technology is a big benefit for people, particularly senior citizens, who are sheltered in their homes and may feel lonely or disconnected.

They typically would have friends or family stop by to make sure they are taking care of themselves and have what they need, but that’s not recommended during the virus pandemic.

His 100-year-old grandmother, Ruth Brooks, who lives in Bloomington, has been using an iPad for years to follow her family on Facebook and communicate via FaceTime.

“I really appreciate having it so that I can keep in touch with out-of-town family because I don’t have everybody close by, and I really do enjoy getting to see what’s going on in Atlanta and different parts of the country,” Ruth said.

Growing up in the country, Ruth said several of her family members lived nearby, so they were close and enjoyed get-togethers. Fortunately, her family still finds it important to stay connected.

“I really have been so fortunate to have a family that really cares about one another,” she said.

She appreciates her children and grandchildren showing her how to use technology so they can all stay in touch. She recently used Zoom for the first time, and one of her grandsons also set up a line app so the family members can interact virtually.

“That is something that I’ve been enjoying for a good while,” she said.

Especially during a pandemic, Ruth likes being able to see her family, even if it’s not in-person.

“I know it’s a fearful time for a lot of people and it’s easy to get pretty concerned about what’s happening, but I don’t have a fear,” she said. “Even getting older, I’m not afraid. My husband had a good attitude about things, and it does help a lot. It makes a big difference in how we can go on and appreciate what do have. I just know that for me, it’s all God’s grace that I really can be where I am now, and I just don’t feel afraid.”

Zimmerman also likes using technology to keep up with family, including a granddaughter who lives in Dublin, Ireland.

“The cyberspace world, it’s everything,” she said. “It’s really quite a blessing.”

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