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• Aug 4, 2020

Baptist Health South Florida expands Telehealth in Response to COVID-19

For the past 15 years, the explosive growth of people online has primarily meant one thing for their health care – doing a search of their symptoms to diagnose their ailment.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting in-person visits to medical professionals, 2020 is now turning out to be the year of telehealth and getting information from a live medical professional instead of a website.

Given the economic consequences of the pandemic, such as rising unemployment, many are struggling with how to cover health care costs to take advantage of innovations such as telehealth.

To make sure vulnerable populations don't get left behind, the TD Charitable Foundation provided funding to help health care organizations expand telehealth services, including a grant to Baptist Health South Florida. TD was among the first major corporations to support telehealth services for the most vulnerable when it provided funding in May.

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Baptist Hospital - Miami, FL

For Baptist Health, currently in one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, there has been an explosive growth in patients using telehealth to meet with medical professionals online for their appointments.

Baptist Health is a non-profit institution that has 10 hospitals, over 40 physician practices and more than 50 outpatient facilities in South Florida. It's been providing a program to offer free telehealth services since March for those in need. Expanded telehealth options allow financially vulnerable individuals to have access to care, testing and information within the safety of their homes. Baptist Health used the funds from TD to purchase equipment to support telehealth services as well as hire and train additional physicians on how they could utilize telehealth with patients.

"The pandemic's impact on Floridians has made it critically important for TD to stand up ways to keep our communities healthy and safe," said Nick Miceli, Metro Florida Regional President, TD Bank. "We are proud of the heroic efforts of the frontline healthcare professionals at Baptist Health South Florida and honored to support their mission."

This grant is aligned to the TD Ready Commitment's Better Health driver which aims to support more equitable health outcomes for everyone. In May, the bank launched the TD Community Resilience Initiative through which the TD Charitable Foundation has been able to direct grants to support the vital work of organizations like Baptist Health so that telehealth becomes a viable option for people and communities whose needs are not being met during this health crisis.

More than 16,000 telehealth visits took place in the first five weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is more than total for all the previous years since Baptist Health initially launched its service in 2016.

"It was like day and night, once we were impacted by COVID-19," said Dr. Douglas Inciarte, Family Medicine physician and Program Director of the West Kendall Baptist Health Family Medicine Residency Program. "I was asked if I would be willing to help with the program during these uncertain times, and we got the training very quickly to be able to do telehealth appointments."

The impactful change facilitated by technology is like those in most other industries, such as with banking and ATM machines, according to Danny Elfenbein, Director of Digital and Consumer Solutions at Baptist Health. "Imagine the paradigm shift when people started to put cash into machines and not talk to tellers. It's the same with the changes in health care."

Seeing a familiar face on the screen helps create comfort

Telehealth has been a vital option during the COVID-19 pandemic for people to continue seeing medical professionals for minor ailments and symptoms with stay-at-home orders. The service has also benefitted those with chronic conditions and seniors who are concerned about any potential exposures leaving their homes.

The benefits extended to keeping providers safer as well since they could save on using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for routine office visits, according to Danny.

“Absolutely amazing service,” said one patient after seeing a doctor on Care On Demand, Baptist Health's virtual platform. “So helpful, so convenient, just to know that at any time of the day you have the option of using this service is just fantastic to me.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary users for telehealth services at Baptist Health were in the age range of 35-50, but that changed as more people 55 and older started using the service due to seniors being more wary of leaving their homes so they could limit exposure.

"Innovations often come from necessity," Danny said.

Dr. Inciarte notes that while he always thought the younger generation were "the savvy ones," he is "nicely surprised" at how savvy the over 65 age group is with technology. He's also seen additional benefits to telehealth appointments.

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Dr. Douglas Inciarte, M.D.

"At first, there was some nervousness, but now when people see a familiar face on the screen for their appointment, they are much more comfortable being in their own environment," Dr. Inciarte said. "I also get a fuller picture of the patient seeing them in the environment where they live with their family. If you ask me, it's an incredible opportunity."

Online access can be a challenge for many

One of the most challenging issues for many in the underprivileged population is access to online tools such as telehealth. Baptist Health is working with organizations and employers to help broaden access so more people can take advantage of the telehealth option, according to Danny.

Both Dr. Inciarte and Danny are very excited about the opportunities in the future with telehealth and are grateful to TD for their support.

"This experience is setting a tone for the future. We are so thankful for TD's support," Danny said.

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