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Tampa Bay Doctors Turn To Telemedicine During Coronavirus Crisis

Patch logo Patch 4/9/2020 D'Ann Lawrence White
a man holding a laptop: Dr. Hays Estes of Premier Physical Therapy & Sports Performance virtually meets with one of his physical therapy patients. © Premier Physical Therapy & Sports Performance Dr. Hays Estes of Premier Physical Therapy & Sports Performance virtually meets with one of his physical therapy patients.

CLEARWATER, FL — With some help from technology, health care professionals are finding creative ways to serve their patients during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Recently, the Florida Orthopaedic Institute was forced to temporarily close its offices after a physician tested positive for the coronavirus after being exposed by a patient.

The physician, who worked at both the South Tampa and North Tampa/Temple Terrace locations, is now recovering under self-quarantine at home with only mild symptoms.

However, that incident showed doctors they're not immune to the virus despite wearing protective gear and taking all precautions.

As an alternative to face-to-face visits with patients, many health care practitioners are turning to the Internet to virtually "see" patients.

Dr. Hays Estes, owner of Premier Physical Therapy & Sports Performance in Clearwater, is accepting appointments with new patients as well as continuing therapy with existing patients using telehealth. The online tool allows him to continue therapy for existing patients as well as diagnose and treat new patients without risking the health of either.

"For a health care specialty that is high touch, the concept of telehealth might seem incongruous, but virtual sessions have not been an obstacle to treatment," said Estes. "Post-surgical PT (physical therapy) patients can avoid longer recovery time if a treatment plan is uninterrupted. Similarly, active adults injured by routine sports activities or by self-testing ways to stay fit at home can get help without making an office visit."

While Premier Physical Therapy & Sports Performance continues to treat patients at its Clearwater clinic using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Estes is finding many patients prefer therapy sessions online.

It spares them the hassle of having to find transportation to therapy sessions and provides reassurance to patients who are reluctant to venture outside the home during the pandemic.

"During this pandemic, physical health and mental health go hand in hand, and both are necessary for maintaining quality of life," said Estes. "The role of telehealth physical therapy during times like these allow those in pain to reduce pain, prevent the decline in health and allow them to do the things they need and love to do without having to risk exposure to a novel virus."

He added that insurance companies have been receptive to covering telehealth visits.

"They recognize the importance of care continuity for PT patients recovering from an injury or medical condition," Estes said.

Estes isn't the only practitioner who has turned to virtual visits during the coronavirus pandemic.

Between now and April 30, neurologist Dr. Deborah Boland, a movement disorder specialist and owner of Be Mobile Neurology, is expanding her telemedicine services to help high-risk people who need neurological care and are in isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Be Mobile Neurology accepts all patients with neurologic conditions who are unable to visit their regular specialists due to coronavirus concerns.

"For optimal health, people with neurologic conditions need continuation of medical services, and televisits allow me to make sure that there’s no interruption in their care without adding any risks," said Boland. "My goal is to help as many people as possible maintain good health and decrease stress about access to health care services at this time of uncertainty.”

During a televisit, Boland has the ability to perform a basic neurologic exam, just as she would for an in-person visit. Patients only need access to a tablet or computer with Internet access to be seen.

With this technology, she can conduct medical interviews, discuss treatment options and observe cognitive status, movements, and mobility, including walking.

Not all health care visits require a specialist, however. How does someone go about getting treatment for a routine sinus infection or urinary tract infection during a pandemic?

Tampa General Hospital is offering TGH Virtual Care to treat sinus infections, sore throats, the flu, allergies, asthma and other general maladies.

With an average wait time of six minutes, patients are able to access a doctor live 24 hours a day seven days a week on their smart phones, tablets or computers.

Doctors can resolve most health care problems in 10 minutes and prescriptions can be sent directly to the patient's pharmacy.

Also jumping on the telehealth bandwagon, on Thursday, Premier Community HealthCare launched its telehealth service. Premier has clinics in Hudson, Spring Hill, Dade City, Brooksville, Lacoochee, New Port Richey and Zephyrhills.

“We sped up our plan to launch telehealth to supplement face-to-face visits, which are discouraged during the current stay-at-home order,” said Premier Community HealthCare CEO Joey Resnick.

Resnick said the software the facility is using to connect patients and doctors is user-friendly and integrates with Premier’s electronic health record system.

Premier is in the process of developing additional telehealth services for pediatrics, behavioral health, women’s health and dental services.

For those who must have a face-to-face visit with a doctor, all Premier offices remain open for emergency services five days a week. To protect patients, Resnick said Premier’s waiting room capacity is limited to five patients at a time and patients are given the option to wait in their cars. Patients are screened telephonically prior to appointments, and Premier has set up outdoor triage stations at all locations to minimize exposure to health care workers and the patients.

“Community health centers are a critical resource for millions of Americans, particularly those who are low-income and without health insurance,” said Delisa Heron, Premier Community HealthCare’s chief medical officer. “The demand for our services is increasing as unemployment is on the rise. Our clinics are forced to evolve in ways much faster than we are financially ready for, but this is what community health is about. We will keep moving forward and adapt in innovative ways to care for our community.”

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