Pandemic forces patients, doctors to find a new way to connect

This pandemic has challenged us in many different ways, including how we see our health care providers.

The process is no longer as simple as picking up the phone, scheduling an appointment and showing up at your physician's office.

To be safe, Tony Walker is learning, we have to do things differently.

On the day we caught up with him, Walker was talking to Morehouse Healthcare’s Dr. Walkitria Smith over the internet, from his doctor’s office, Preston Family Medicine.

The practice is in the small town of Preston in Webster County, located in rural southwest Georgia.

Walker says he's about 45 minutes away from the closest major hospital, Phoebe Sumter.

But, that facility and its sister hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, have been hit hard by a major outbreak of COVID-19 that has sickened more than 2,000 people and killed 103 patients at the two hospitals.

So, the idea of ending up in a crowded ER right now is unsettling to him.

Fortunately, he has another option.

Walker is part of Morehouse Healthcare's telemedicine pilot program, which was created in 2018, two years before this novel coronavirus began to spread.

And, he says, the program has been a lifeline, helping him stay on top of his blood sugar and his health.

"I'm diabetic, I'm overweight,” Walker says.   

He also has high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation.

So, if he contracts COVID-19, Walker knows, it could be devastating.

Dr. Smith, a family practice physician, is helping Walker manage his health from her home 150 miles away.

"So, it's really, really important to us to be able to engage with our patients, to make sure we're staying in touch on an ongoing basis, so we can control those chronic diseases," Dr. Smith says.

These days, Dr. Smith is seeing her patients through Morehouse Healthcare's telemedicine app.

She says it's easy to use.

"If you know how to use an iPhone, it's as simple as FaceTiming your grandkids, your other family members," Dr. Smith says.  "You can do telemedicine."

So, what's a virtual visit like?

Imagine your sinuses are acting up, Smith says.

"You can give me your history," Dr. Smith says.  "I can even help you go through a small exam. I can ask you certain things to help me decide or not whether you need escalated care, meaning an emergency department or urgent care, or if we can intervene, keep you at home and keep you out of danger's way."

Dr. Smith says there are challenges.

Not everyone is tech-savvy.

Some of their patients do not have apps downloaded on their phones.

And, she can't physically examine her patients.

But, Smith says, telemedicine has made her a better listener, and has helped her really meet her patients where they are.

To connect with his endocrinologist on the app, Walker still has to come to his doctor's office, where he has a better Wi-Fi connection.

But, he says, he no longer has to worry about driving 45 minutes to the closest hospital, and waiting in a crowded waiting room with people who might be sick.

He says he hopes to transition to seeing Dr. Smith and the rest of his Morehouse Healthcare team from his house.

Telemedicine, he says, is the future.

"Actually, the more you do it, the easier it becomes," Walker says. "I would love to be able to do it from home while wearing my pajamas."