July 28, 2020

COVID-19 pandemic accelerates telehealth growth

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As we know, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama spurred massive changes across all our operations, forcing us to quickly adopt new ways of working, learning, sustaining our research enterprise, and providing the care on which our city and state depend so heavily. I continue to be impressed and inspired as I look back on the hard work and adaptability our faculty, staff, trainees, and students have displayed in pivoting to this “new normal,” and keeping as complex and large-scale an organization as UAB Medicine delivering on our missions.

Perhaps one of the most pointed transformations the pandemic has wrought is the way it has fast-tracked the growth of telehealth. Fortunately, UAB Medicine had already made telehealth a priority well before the pandemic, and thus was well positioned to accelerate our efforts in the face of a public health crisis. In 2016, Bart Kelly was named executive director of UAB Medicine Telehealth Services, and in 2017, Eric Wallace, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Medicine, was named medical director of UAB eMedicine. With these capable leaders already in place, UAB was able to take a substantial portion of our patient care online and out of the clinics.

UAB has been recognized recently for its critical role in expanding and promoting telehealth across our state. UAB eMedicine already uses telehealth carts to expand telehealth services to other hospitals to ensure access to subspecialty care such as infectious diseases, critical care, stroke, and nephrology. Now, a $1 million award from the Federal Communications Commission will further facilitate the telehealth transition spurred by the pandemic, funding the purchase of iPads, webcams, and remote patient monitoring devices. It will also enable UAB to add additional telehealth carts in the emergency department and maternal emergency unit to improve the ability to screen patients and reduce health care provider exposure, and in intensive care units and palliative care units to help patients connect with loved ones while visitation remains limited. The award will also fund expanded remote patient monitoring of patients with COVID-19, particularly for those at high risk of morbidity and mortality due to secondary conditions such as diabetes, heart failure, kidney disease, and hypertension.

In addition, Dr. Wallace and Curt Carver Jr., Ph.D., UAB’s vice president of Information Technology and chief information officer, were recently named by Gov. Kay Ivey to serve on the Broadband Working Group to provide guidance on how to allocate funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Alabama received $1.9 billion in CARES Act funding to help mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. The state government has appropriated up to $300 million of those funds for expenditures around technology and infrastructure for remote instruction and learning. Given the persistent gaps in broadband coverage in our state, improving access to broadband has long been a goal of both Drs. Carver and Wallace, and this opportunity may well open the door to much-needed improvements.

The prominence of telehealth will undoubtedly continue to grow even after we conquer COVID-19—not only does it help control health care costs, but it also expands much-needed patient care and subspecialty access to rural and underserved areas. I look forward to seeing the ways UAB Medicine will continue to lead the way in this critical area of health care.