By Taylor Boyd
After months of anticipation, telehealth appointments are now available in Patrick County, courtesy of a grant from the State Office of Rural Health, which is bringing the telehealth services to community rescue squads to improve health care access to doctors and specialists.
Patients make appointments with their doctor in the usual way but travel no further than their local rescue squad station for the visit.
A trained medical professional at the squad building will assist with the visit.
“Our goal is to make it easier to access appointments with your provider when barriers might be present such as transportation, time, and childcare,” said Nancy Bell, public information officer for the West Piedmont Health District (WPHD).
Bell said that currently, patients may call Patrick County Family Practice or Caring Hearts Free Clinic for an appointment as usual but request a telehealth appointment instead.
A staff member from either PCFP or CHFC will confirm and provide information about when to arrive at the designated rescue squad (either Smith River or Jeb Stuart).
“You can get in a lot quicker this way,” Bell said, adding that appointments are viable only for those who live closer to a participating rescue squad than a medical practice.
Telehealth appointments will cost the same as a regular doctor’s appointment and are covered by insurance and Medicaid.
Next appointments will be located at Jeb Stuart Rescue Squad from 8 a.m. to noon on January 18 and 25.
“We’re hoping that a bunch of people make appointments so we can test it and make sure it works appropriately,” Bell said, and added that initially, there will be five or six telehealth appointments each day “just to get our feet wet.”
The program hopefully will be expanded, with additional weekdays added, she said.
Once an appointment is made, patients will report to the appropriate rescue squad building where a nurse will be waiting to perform the initial patient physical consultation and obtain preliminary information, such as blood pressure, height, and weight.
Telehealth patients “don’t need to know technology or anything,” Bell said, adding the nurse will prepare a computer for the patient/doctor visit, and then step outside for the rest of the appointment.
Eventually, planners hope, the program will provide access to specialists from across the country who also use telehealth to see patients. This would be beneficial when considering the costs associated with traveling to physicians in Roanoke, Charlottesville and Winston-Salem, N.C., and other areas.
“So, if a patient wants to have an appointment with the breast cancer doctor at UVA, that can happen. X-rays and things can take place locally, but you can still have that expert working with you on the internet,” Bell said.
The program stems from a two-year citizen study of ways to improve health care access in Patrick County, which is a rural, mountainous area with extremely remote communities. The group, called Healthy Patrick County, used grants to determine best options.
Expert guidance was commissioned using funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Virginia Cooperative Extension obtained a data grant which provided critical information to the planning team.
This project is a partnership between Caring Hearts Free Clinic, Healthy Patrick County, Patrick County Emergency Services, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the Virginia Department of Health.
“It’s really been a group effort and I think everyone is really excited. I hope the folks of Patrick County will use it because it has a lot of possibilities,” Bell said.
To schedule a telehealth appointment, Patrick County Family Practice patients may call or text (276) 692-6112. Caring Hearts Free Clinic patients may call (276) 694-3410.