EVESHAM >> Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, most health care providers offered little, if any, virtual care. But over the past few months, Virtua Health has initiated an array of telemedicine services – helping tens of thousands of South Jersey residents get the care they need while staying safe at home.

Now, the not-for-profit health system is embarking on an effort to expand its telehealth programs even further – and improve access to high-quality health care for even more people.

The program – which helps those both with and without the coronavirus – includes everything from video doctor visits to remote health-monitoring. It offers an online portal where patients can track their health and communicate with their physicians. And, in some instances, Virtua even sends health equipment to eligible patients – including tablet computers, blood pressure monitors, and body-weight scales – based on the person’s needs.

“The benefits of telehealth are enormous, in terms of keeping people healthy,” said Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE, president and CEO of Virtua Health. “The pandemic inspired many of these innovations at Virtua, and we’re excited to keep expanding our telehealth capabilities to do even more good in our communities.”

In addition, new advances in remote health monitoring and other virtual technologies are broadening the realm of telemedicine capabilities.

Telehealth is especially vital for people who are underserved or vulnerable, noted Tarun Kapoor, MD, MBA, senior vice president of clinical integration at Virtua Health.

“People who have difficulty accessing medical care are at greatest risk for serious health problems, including COVID-19, and generally have worse outcomes,” he explained. “Telemedicine – such as talking to a doctor or nurse by phone or video call – makes it much easier for people to connect with care.”

The expansion of these initiatives is supported through philanthropic donations, including a $75,000 grant from TD Charitable Foundation, the charitable giving arm of TD Bank.

"TD recognizes that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities and we're honored to partner with Virtua Health to support them in providing greater health care equity and access to those in need," said Mike Carbone, Regional President, NJ/Metro PA, TD Bank.

“We are grateful to the TD Charitable Foundation for their proactive and visionary grant-making during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sarah Fawcett-Lee, CFRE, Virtua Health’s senior vice president and chief philanthropy officer. “It is a pleasure to partner with them on such an important project that will ensure our most vulnerable neighbors have access to the care they need. Together, we can achieve great things.”

Virtua’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program includes:

• Remote monitoring for discharged patients with COVID-19 who present a higher risk for relapse and readmission. Virtua gives patients a Bluetooth-enabled scale, pulse oximeter, blood pressure cuff, and tablet for video calls with the nurse and clinician. To date, 80 patients have participated. It is especially beneficial to vulnerable patients in Camden City and underserved communities in Burlington and Camden counties.

Once the pandemic is over, these kits will continue to be used by patients who are vulnerable and at high risk for readmission due to chronic health conditions, and who have historically lacked access to care.

• Video and phone visits for non-COVID-19 outpatients. Virtua Medical Group’s physician offices have conducted more than 100,000 phone and video visits since early March.

• Protection for Virtua’s most vulnerable patients. Virtua has identified and connected with 3,000 patients who would be at high risk of a poor outcome from COVID-19 if they were to become infected. They are often older with serious health conditions, and many have limited income and live in underserved communities. Virtua ensures these patients have a 90-day supply of medications, food in the pantry, and phone or video consultations with physicians. This negates patients’ need to go out, reducing their potential exposure to the coronavirus. The initiative also reduces emergency-room visits and hospitalization for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.

• On-demand video visits for people with COVID-19 symptoms. This service is available to the public from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. It has been used by 2,000 patients to date. Details: www.virtua.org/evisits

• Telehealth and equipment for cardiac rehab patients. Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program of exercise, education, and stress-reduction designed for people who have experienced heart attack, heart failure, angioplasty, bypass, valve surgery, or angina. Patients enrolled in Virtua’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program receive phone visits two to three times per week, in lieu of visits to a rehab center. The program also provides equipment, including scales, blood pressure monitors, activity trackers, and tablets so that patients can continue their rehab at home.

• Inpatient behavioral-health consultations via video. Hospitalized patients who need behavioral-health support receive this service through video consultations. This will reduce the number of people entering patient rooms in Virtua’s five hospitals.

• Telehealth and supplies for pediatric early-intervention-program (P-EIP) families. Virtua’s program was the first P-EIP in South Jersey to offer telehealth sessions in response to the pandemic. P-EIP provides home-and community-based therapies for children with developmental disabilities and other challenges. The initiative also delivers free food, toys, diapers, and other critical supplies to families in need, including many parents who are essential workers.

• Video visits for hospitalized patients and families. The “Virtua Angel Program” provides iPads loaded with the Zoom video app, so hospitalized patients can communicate remotely with loved ones, free of charge. Virtua’s staff sets up the tele-visits in advance or on-demand if needed.

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