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UPMC Goes Big On Telemedicine In Battle Against Coronavirus

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

UPMC said Friday it’s ramping up telehealth efforts to meet the demands of patients seeking care amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, reporting that last week it provided more remote visits than it did during the entirety of 2019.

To avoid exposure to the virus, more patients are accessing health care through video conferencing, which UPMC said is appropriate in many instances.

“Patients who have a new need for care, those who have a chronic condition that needs more assessment or more care. Post-acute care, follow-up ... and even mental health aid,” said Dr. Donald Yealy, chair of the health system’s department of emergency medicine.

If people contact UPMC with COVID-19 symptoms through telemedicine or the phone, Yealy said it will give staff time to prepare to see those patients and take action that minimizes the risk of staff getting infected.

The federal government is encouraging the use of telehealth, as it announced last week that it would temporarily reimburse clinicians for these visits at the same rate as in-person appointments. UPMC competitor Allegheny Health Network has also directed patients to access care through video conferencing.

This effort is part of a larger trend by health systems to find ways to keep people out of medical facilities, as a way to protect staff and patients from being exposed to people who may not know they are infected with coronavirus. Other changes include the scaling back elective surgeries, canceling in-patient appointments and limiting visitation.   

UPMC also announced a new call center, where physicians can connect with infectious disease specialists, as a way to connect its vast health system of 4,900 doctors. Dr. Rachel Sackrowitz, the chief medical officer for UPMC’s intensive care unit service center, said this communication will aid doctors during in-patient consultations

“The focus is, of course, on COVID-19, but these specialists are available to help with any infectious disease needs,” she said. “This will avoid any unnecessary patient transfers and also offer much needed support and backup to our bedside infectious disease physicians.”

The call center is slated to be up and running by Monday.

WESA receives funding from UPMC.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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