By Dave Ongie, News Editor
In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, there is no shortage of information on what people should do if they think they might have contracted the virus. Regular press conferences are held to advise the public on how to avoid getting infected and what to do if they start experiencing symptoms consistent with the novel coronavirus.
But what do you do if you simply need to visit your primary care physician for a routine appointment or an unrelated medical concern? Is it safe to go to the doctor’s office?
Healthcare providers in our region are currently going to great lengths to ensure patients who need to see their doctor for a regularly scheduled appointment can do so. Dr. David Moulton, Director of Quality at State of Franklin Healthcare Associates, said safeguards have been developed and put in place to protect patients from contracting COVID-19 when they visit a SoFHA medical provider.
“We’re trying to give our patients confidence that they can come and see us,” Moulton said.
SoFHA’s measures start with a prescreening process for anyone calling in and requesting an appointment. Patients are asked if they’ve had contact with a COVID-19 patient, if they’ve traveled to a “hot spot” like New York City or Louisiana and if they are experiencing a fever, cough or shortness of breath.
“These are the people I would worry about if I was going to a doctor’s appointment,” Moulton said. “I don’t want to run into somebody who’s had this.”
Patients who are experiencing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus are diverted toward a tele-health appointment. SoFHA has signed on with a company called VisuWell Telemedicine and uses the same platform as Ballad Health and ETSU Health. Those who call the COVID-19 hotline will be screened over the phone by nurses, who will determine whether the patient is at high risk of having the coronavirus.
If a patient is determined to be at risk of having the coronavirus, SoFHA has a physician assessing high-risk patients Monday through Sunday from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Moulton said having a physician assessing patients is vital since a high percentage of patients who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 will test negative, but still have other medical conditions that need to be assessed, such as an infection, pneumonia or a worsening of COPD.
“This is why the face to face with a physician is so important,” he said. “Not only will you be COVID-assessed, but they can also tell you, ‘I think it could be something else, and I need to initiate treatment and actually send in medicine.’”
For those concerned about whether their insurance will cover a tele-health appointment, SoFHA Chief of Payer Relations and Value Contracting Amanda Clear said some insurance providers are waiving the cost of tele-health appointments, and patients will be made aware of any responsibility at the beginning of the call.
“We do let them know depending on their individual payer that there may be an individual responsibility for that visit, but it would not be more than it would if they came into the office,” she said.
Anyone with an appointment for an office visit at a SoFHA provider will be screened prior to entry to ensure they aren’t exhibiting symptoms consistent with the virus and have not traveled to a hot spot. Folks who display symptoms will be issued a mask and gloves and isolated from other patients.
“We’re going to have you separated from the normal patient population and take you back to a room as soon as possible,” Moulton said. “We’re not going to have you in the common area to wait or check out. If you need labs, we’re going to have the lab folks come to the room to draw them.”
SoFHA patients who prefer not to visit the office in person for a wellness appointment or chronic disease management also have the option of utilizing tele-health.
Like SoFHA, practices around the region have taken steps in an effort to continue caring for patients while keeping medical professionals healthy. Anyone with an upcoming appointment should review the latest guidelines put in place by his or her medical provider prior to the appointment.