Providence Centralia Hospital continues to be affected by shortages in health care workers and overcrowding, leading to long wait times in the emergency room and low availability of hospital beds.
But, according to Chris Thomas, spokesperson for Providence South Puget Sound, of the 100 patients who visit the Providence Centralia Hospital emergency room, 20 to 25% of those could have been seen through the provider’s telehealth system, Providence ExpressCare Virtual.
“First and foremost, if you have an emergency, come to the emergency department,” Thomas said. “But we have 20 to 25% of the people that are walking in with those common ailments … cold, cough, pinkeye.”
Banke Babalola, a provider who sees patients through telehealth and trains other ExpressCare doctors, said over a Zoom call from Texas that despite being far away from the people she sees online, she is able to connect them with local resources and “find true joy in the care” her work allows.
“I’m coming to people’s homes or coming to wherever their convenient location is remotely, and I’m able to ease their way from far away, where I am. I can send prescriptions to their pharmacy, I can still do the same care that I can do in person,” Babalola said. “It’s just been an honor to serve patients in our (Providence’s) communities this way.”
Beyond the potential to decrease wait times in the emergency rooms for patients who need immediate care, Babalola and Thomas touted the program’s benefits for the user as well. Appointments are fully covered by a variety of insurance providers that can be found on a list before the visit begins. Without insurance, visits cost $79, far less than the average trip to the emergency room.
Wait times are also much shorter than in person at the hospital. On average, according to Amanda Ashley, Providence director of telemedicine, the average wait time for online care in January was 15 minutes. It’s also open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Babalola said ExpressCare has particular benefits for families with working parents. If one child is sick and others still need someone at home to watch them, telehealth offers a way to stay in the home and receive quality care. Among the most surprising and rewarding patient visits she recalled, Babalola said, have been new mothers who need a doctor’s help breastfeeding for the first time.
Fewer than 5% of patients need to be “triaged,” and brought in for emergency care, Ashley and Babalola attest to. In those instances, providers over ExpressCare will contact local first responders and wait on the other end of the video chat for them to arrive.
While COVID-19 greatly boosted the number of people seeking online care, Ashley said she’s been in her position for 13 years. Before the pandemic, ExpressCare saw around 70 patients per day. Just weeks into the pandemic, that number jumped to around 800. At its peak, the system saw 1,200 patients per day.
Babalola remembers walking patients through many appointments where they experienced panic and anxiety around COVID-19 they mistook for symptoms of the virus itself.
“You've been able to just calm them down and give them reassurance and give them clinical recommendation(s) and say, ‘Hey, we're here, let's do this,’” Babalola said. “To me, that’s amazing. … During that visit, did you show compassion? They’ll remember how you reassured them.”
Nowadays, the system sees around 200 to 300 patients in a day.
“I’ve been doing telemedicine for such a long time. I believe in it,” Ashley said. “I think it is so valuable, I’m glad that people see that now and sorry that it took a pandemic for people to see.”
While rural areas can cut down on travel times to the emergency room through telemedicine, internet access may be more difficult to receive. For this reason, and for people who are less tech savvy, ExpressCare has a call line that can walk patients through the process on their computers and troubleshoot connectivity issues.
For a list of ailments where telemedicine is recommended, to read more about ExpressCare or to begin an appointment, visit https://www.providence.org/services/expresscare-virtual.