Tyrone Turner was conflicted as his appointment with Anne Fitzsimmons, MD, his longtime primary care doctor at MU Health Care, approached. He wanted to discuss the results of recent tests and ask questions about medications he takes to control his diabetes, but he also wanted to avoid going out in public because of COVID-19.
Turner, a carpenter who is riding out the pandemic at his home in Columbia, was told his visit could be handled through virtual care. Without leaving his house, he connected with Fitzsimmons through a video conference.
“I was able to walk into the next room and grab my medicines and go over them with her. It really worked out well,” Turner said. “I also took my blood sugar right in front of her, so we got a blood sugar reading, too. You can do that in the office, but it’s a lot more comfortable sitting in your living room.”
All the reasons people come to MU Health Care’s hospitals and clinics haven’t taken a break for the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those appointments can go on as planned virtually.
“Just because we have great concerns about the COVID virus doesn’t mean that other care is less important than it used to be,” said MU Health Care family medicine doctor Michael LeFevre, MD. “Much of the care that we provide can be done with a video visit, and that keeps patients out of our waiting rooms, keeps them home sheltered in place, but getting health care at the same time. That means the risk of exposure when patients do need to come in is very, very low, because you’re unlikely to come into contact with anybody that’s been exposed to the virus.”
When people call their MU Health Care provider to set up an appointment, they will be told if they’re a candidate for virtual care. If so, they will receive instructions on how to participate in a video conference with their doctor, which is conducted through the Zoom app. MU Health Care subscribes to the secure, HIPAA-compliant version of the app, so personal health information will remain private.
MU Health Care offers virtual care for visits with primary care doctors, specialists and physical therapists. The cost is the same to the patient as a clinic visit. This option became available during the COVID-19 threat because regulators eased restrictions on virtual care and because public and private insurers are covering video visits as they would in-person visits.
LeFevre said certain screenings — such as mammograms, pap smears or colonoscopies — as well as surgeries that aren’t time-sensitive will be postponed until the COVID-19 threat is over. He said parents of kids under 2 should not postpone their immunizations and that special measures are taken to get children from the car to the exam room safely.
MU Health Care sports medicine doctor Aaron Gray, MD, had never examined a patient virtually until a few weeks ago. Now, he conducts most of his appointments with video conferences. He said his patients, particularly those from outside Columbia, have appreciated the convenience.
“I had a patient from Sedalia, and by 8:15 in the morning, her virtual visit was done,” Gray said. “She said, ‘I would have had to leave at 6:30, driven an hour, waited in the waiting room and driven back.’ She saved about three hours. She was thrilled.
“I had one patient from down around the Lake of the Ozarks. She had her own X-rays she got from a doctor down there. She pulled up the X-rays, shared her screen with me, and I was like, ‘OK, can you go to the next X-ray?’ That was cool because she never came here, never sent us anything, but I was able to talk to her, hear her history and see her images. I was thinking, ‘There’s a lot of situations where we could do this in the future.’ ”
MU Health Care’s Mizzou Therapy Services is also continuing to serve patients. The therapy team screens new patients and determines if they need to receive care in clinic. Patients who need in-person care work individually with a therapist in an isolated area to minimize infection risk to themselves and others. Most patients can complete their sessions with virtual care.
“Therapists have proven that their patient education skills at times are the most important intervention they can deliver,” said Brett Hayes, PT, the senior director of Mizzou Therapy Services. “Virtual visits allow us to maintain this patient connection if in-clinic care is not feasible. Long term, we hope that after this pandemic we will be able to offer this technology for patients in rural areas to minimize their need to travel.”
Turner was relieved to have his questions answered and said he would gladly use the virtual care option again.
“The fact you can sit here and talk to your doctor just like an office visit was nice,” he said. “We went over some prescriptions I needed refilled and that sort of thing, and now my medicine is ready for me.”