COVID-19 pushes tele-health forward in Silicon Valley as virus holds patients back
Santa Clara County hospitals are using emergency rooms to care for patients because intensive care units are overrun, health officials say. Stock photo.

    Even in tech-heavy Silicon Valley, COVID-19 has pushed people and companies to embrace technology in new ways, a trend also true in health care as tele-health visits soar, making medical care more accessible for some.

    At Stanford Children’s Health, hospital administrators have been working on developing and increasing the use of its digital health program. Once the coronavirus hit the region, its tele-health visits increased from about 20 per day to between 750 and 800.

    “I think that’s one of the silver linings of this pandemic is that both providers and patients and families have realized how much quality care can be provided, via tele-health,” said Dr. Natalie Pageler, chief medical information officer for Stanford Children’s Health.

    That’s especially helpful at Stanford because many of the specialty services that the hospital offers don’t exist everywhere, meaning some families travel long distances to see those doctors, she added.

    And though silver linings — like the expansion of digital health care — can be found in the chaos of a pandemic, the impacts of the coronavirus have been complicated, Pageler and other medical professionals said last week during a virtual panel hosted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group during its annual Game Changers event.

    The novel and contagious virus, which causes a sometimes severe illness known as COVID-19, will likely have lasting impacts on Silicon Valley’s medical industry, panelists said. It has also already had major impacts on peoples’ health — even those who haven’t gotten the virus but are hesitant to go to the doctor.

    “The fear that we have is paralyzing some of our patients,” said Tomi Ryba, president and CEO of Regional Medical Center of San Jose. “When EMS crews arrive at the home and they see them coming in with all of their PPE gear, it’s not reassuring. It’s actually scary, and so they’re calling late, they’re calling sometimes too late.”

    Panelists talk about technology, health care and the economy during the annual Game Changers event hosted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The panel was moderated by Ed Clendaniel, editorial page editor for the Bay Area News Group. It included Dr. Natalie Pageler, chief medical onformation Officer for Stanford Children’s Health; Dr. Lizz Vilardo, CEO of Sutter Health Bay Area Medical Foundations; Nicole Taylor, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; Dr. Catherine Mohr, president of the Intuitive Foundation and Tomi Ryba, president and CEO of Regional Medical Center of San Jose.

    Hospitals have tried to assure patients that their facilities are not scary, and many have been successful at containing the virus through testing and other precautions, like separating COVID-19-positive patients from those who do not have the illness.

    “We’re safe,” Dr. Lizz Vilardo, CEO for Sutter Health Bay Area Medical Foundations, said. “Not a single person in our organization has gotten COVID(-19) from a patient, even working in the respiratory clinics and working with many patients who are quite ill.”

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    Medical centers across the state in recent months geared up for a massive surge of COVID-19 patients that hasn’t yet arrived, due to a regional shelter-in-place order that has kept residents inside and shuttered businesses around the Bay Area.

    Elective surgeries and any procedures deemed not “essential” in the near-term were halted. Combined with the reduction in overall visits, the virus has left many medical centers with slashed revenues resulting in some layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts regionally.

    Small community health centers that treat some of the most vulnerable and low-income populations in Silicon Valley have also felt the impacts of residents scared to go to the doctor, even as low-income and minority communities are hit hardest by the coronavirus.

    Some community health centers are taking out loans and consolidating locations to make it through the pandemic so they’ll be around when people feel comfortable to go back to the doctor.

    “Our community’s economic health, our region’s economic health is completely intertwined with public health,” Nicole Taylor, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, said during the event. “COVID(-19) …has magnified the existing inequities in our communities.”

    But now certain restrictions are beginning to lift, though the Bay Area is loosening its rules slower than other parts of the state.

    Even so, health professionals are still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, including how to protect people from getting sick in the first place as more shops open and people begin to return to work.

    “Really, the most important thing that we can do is think about community health and follow our social compact,” Vilardo said. “That social compact is we will wear a mask, we will wash our hands and we will stay six feet apart. If we do that, we’ll keep each other healthy, we’ll keep our community healthy and we can all return to work.”

    Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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