Image courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine

Telemedicine as a medium for providing patient care had been steadily on the rise for years — yet, still not as prevalent as face-to-face appointments. We now find ourselves in a world where COVID-19 has altered nearly every aspect of our lives — from work, school, medical, psychiatric, interacting with legal systems, and even running governments. The need to convene has come to rely heavily on voice and video technologies to keep life moving while keeping everyone healthy.

When thinking about the medical system in particular, it’s not hard to imagine the benefits of virtual appointments. Among the most obvious, allowing vulnerable populations to stay home while safeguarding the health of our essential healthcare workers.

We recently spoke with Dave Flax, Director of Information Systems for the University of Maryland Baltimore’s (UMB) Department of Psychiatry to learn more about how their infrastructure relies on Poly. For the past five years, Flax and his team have been facilitating telehealth and telepsych consults and counseling to rural communities in Eastern Maryland via an off-site roaming RV equipped with video endpoints.

Bringing Care to Patients

The RV turned-mobile-care-unit is part of a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) federal government-funded grant to provide mental health and substance abuse services to under-serviced communities in Maryland and is headed by Eric Weintraub, MD, Addiction Research and Medical Director at UMB. Working together, Weintraub and Flax determined the necessary attributes to meet both the practitioner-patient needs as well as the infrastructure and technology required to facilitate remote telehealth counseling and services. Specifically, the grant aims to provide care to underserved populations requiring psychiatry or mental health counseling and substance abuse resources for the Caroline County Department of Juvenile Services.

 

 

The primary goal of the mobile care unit is to remove as many barriers to care as possible. That’s why appointments in the RV can be attended on a walk-in basis and the unit is parked in various locations throughout the county during the week.

“Before, these populations couldn’t get to the health department for these services because they live in remote locations and are those who need these services the most,” said Flax. “Now, we’re bringing those services directly to where they are.”

In an interview, Peer Counselor, Roger McKnight echoes Flax, explaining, “This unit is designed to actually go to the rural areas of America and be able to bring treatment. And, this is exactly what we do.” Adding, “Most of our patients normally can’t see a mental health specialist or someone at that caliber, so we bring it to them.”

The RV is outfitted with a Poly RealPresence Debut video conferencing device which is remotely connected to the clinicians and physicians located in Baltimore — all the patient needs to do is sit down and their session can begin. And, this approach to accessible care seems to have staying power as the unit services anywhere from 15 to 30 patients a day.

The Right Technology for the Job

When we asked what tech requirements Flax outlined for the project to be a success, he noted the need for tools that provide a consistent user experience, are interoperable with other devices and platforms, and provide an engaging video experience for both ends of the call.

Easy to Manage and Use from Anywhere

Due to the mobile nature of the project, the technology needed to be intuitive to use and manage remotely.

“When I was asked for my recommendations on which products to consider for this grant, I knew I needed something easy to use that could be remotely monitored and seamlessly register back to our University of Maryland’s registered gateway. We installed the Poly in a day, and it has worked beautifully,” said Dave Flax.

Interoperability and Ease of Use

Another significant consideration was that the devices needed to have an interoperable design so that they could easily be embedded into the University’s integrated systems that already exist.

“One of the reasons we invested in Poly… is that, if there is an issue, I know it’s not a device issue,” Flax told Poly. “We use monitoring software and are able to see where in the connection the issues are, and we rarely see drops in package or a dropped connection because of a device. As an IT director, I’m not ever seeing the Poly devices have the issue.” Adding, “Our Polys have been rock-solid, we’ve been using these devices for maybe seven years, no issues.”

An Engaging Video Experience

Flax also underlined the need for high-quality video to provide true-to-life visuals to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. Because the interaction and consultation are conducted entirely through video, doctors and counselors needed technology that could closely mimic an in-person session — providing a clear line-of-sight to body language and nonverbal cues that are undetectable through audio-only consultations.

Resources in the Midst of a Pandemic

Outside of the technology in the RV, each clinician and physician have a Poly device in their home to support the far-end while still abiding by social distancing and shelter in place policies. “We’ve been able to take the Poly [videoconferencing device] and configure and hand them to a counselor. They take it home and hook it up, it’s all preconfigured, so all they have to do is turn it on,” explained Flax.

As an organization, the UMB campus uses a combination of Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, and Zoom. “One of the great things with Teams is that we’ve been piloting the RealConnect. It’s been especially nice when our clinicians need to join meetings, they don’t need to go have a webcam or anything else, they jump in directly through their Poly devices and it’s worked phenomenally,” says Flax. “Poly is the only company with devices that can handle anything I’ve thrown at it!”

Image courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine

The Rise and Stay of Telehealth

The HRSA grant is helping to provide services to those who may have never worked with therapists and find that video consultations are an easy, painless, and simple path to healthcare. Even during COVID-19, and clinicians are still serving 15-20 patients a day.

While discussing the impacts COVID-19 has had on telehealth, Flax explained, “What we’ve learned with COVID-19, is that all types of telehealth, and not just psych services, will only increase. With many of our patients, they are dealing with heavy psych issues like homelessness, drug addiction, mental health, depression and we’re seeing they don’t want their appointments on-site. We’ve seen that oftentimes those patients prefer to have their initial consultations telephonically or via video. Both our patients and our clinicians are loving it.”

Overall, Flax is confident that teletherapy is not going away anytime soon. “It’s here to stay…” he says.