Tech with Touch initiative personalizes telemedicine

New program offered by Rocky Vista University and Rocky Vista Health Center

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As patients across the nation return to their doctors' offices after years of pandemic-induced virtual appointments, in-person medical visits are still not feasible for many.

Due to lack of transportation, health problems and other barriers to access, some patients continue to receive medical care virtually. But telemedicine has its challenges, especially for patients who are uncomfortable using computers or videoconference services.

A new initiative from Rocky Vista University and the Rocky Vista Health Center aims to solve this issue. The program, called Tech with Touch, will send medical students into the homes of patients who lack access to in-person visits to assist them in conducting telemedicine visits.

“I conceived of this plan during COVID because we were doing a lot of visits through telemedicine and I thought that was such a great thing because we have a lot of patients who have difficulty getting to the clinic,” said Dr. Pamela Kinder, adjunct professor of clinical medicine at RVU and creator of the initiative.

She said the goal of the program is to increase wellness in populations that can’t come into the clinic, whether it’s because they have dementia, vision problems, caregiving responsibilities or other reasons.

Urban Underserved Medicine Track

Kinder said the program will also allow medical students to have contact with real patients. Students in RVU’s Urban Underserved Medicine Track (UUT) will conduct the home visits.

The UUT focuses on the care of populations that could be considered underserved in the medical community, said second-year medical student Madeleine Garcia, who is on the track. This includes indigenous populations, refugees, LGBTQ+ individuals, people experiencing homelessness and incarcerated individuals, according to RVU’s website.

Catherine Hegedus, another second-year medical student in the UUT, said Tech with Touch will help to reach the underserved community of elderly people.

“You wouldn't typically think of your elderly patient population as a marginalized community, but they also have various social determinants of health which keep them from getting into the clinic or keep them from understanding about their own health care,” she said.

In addition to helping marginalized patients, Hegedus said the program will enhance the education of students in her position.

“It's just a way for medical students, especially in your first two years when you almost have no patient interaction, to remember that everything you're learning is to treat a real person,” she said.

'Eyes and ears' of the resident

Through the Tech with Touch program, students will visit patients’ homes in pairs to support virtual appointments with resident physicians, according to a document by Dr. Jean Bouquet, co-director of the UUT.

The students will spend an hour reviewing the patient’s medications, administering any necessary questionnaires, performing vital signs and listening to patient concerns, Bouquet wrote.

They will then help their patient log on to an online platform to attend a telemedicine appointment with their resident physician. 

Since UUT students are not yet medically licensed, they will not be permitted to offer medical advice or administer medications, Bouquet wrote. They will, however, act as the “eyes and ears” of the resident physicians, observing and listening to patients’ concerns and reporting back to their resident, Bouquet said.

Garcia said having uninterrupted time to speak with the students in-person will help patients communicate their concerns.

“I think for a lot of folks who are a little bit older, it's hard to feel connected over a screen,” Garcia said.

After the appointment, the pair of students will take turns calling their patient weekly to check in with them, Bouquet said.

“I just think that's going to be worth a ton as far as (the patient) feeling that they're not isolated and that there's somebody looking after them,” he said. “I think that's probably going to be almost more important than the actual visit.”

Studying isolation

Garcia and Hegedus said they hope the program will help to combat loneliness and isolation that could be impacting the mental and physical health of patients.

“A lot of people during COVID felt isolated,” Hegedus said. “And we learn in school about how stress and social isolation and depression, anxiety and all those mental health conditions can poorly affect health.”

When Kinder presented the Tech with Touch program to the UUT students, Garcia and Hegedus were inspired to design a study to investigate how the program would affect the mental health of patients.

“Our hope is that … (patients’) perceived isolation or perceived loneliness or perceived depression and anxiety will decrease over time as we really make a concerted effort to connect with them and help them become an active part of their health care," Garcia said.

To conduct the study, Garcia and Hegedus said students will administer social isolation, anxiety and depression questionnaires at the home visits and they will track patients’ scores over time.

Bouquet said he hopes the study will be published so other people can use the data from their research. The program will only serve RVU Health Center patients at first, but he said he hopes it could eventually expand to serve a wider community.

Garcia also has hope for how the Tech with Touch program can help communities in big ways.

“People say all the time that the American healthcare system is broken. We spend five minutes with our doctors, we don't get a lot of face-to-face time, we're just prescribed a lot of medications,” she said. “(This is) an attempt to personalize medicine. It's an attempt to connect with your patients on a more human-to-human level and bring back that more personalized, connected relationship between physician and patient.”

The program will begin after the group receives institutional review board approval for the study in November, Garcia said.

Bouquet encourages people who are interested in being part of the Tech with Touch program to call the RVU Health Center at 720-875-2880.

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