When the pandemic hit in March 2020, most clinics at Children’s of Alabama pivoted to telehealth visits, including pulmonology. Although things have primarily returned to normal with in-person visits, telehealth still has a presence in the outpatient setting.
Given that, an interprofessional team of Pediatric Pulmonary Trainees at the University of Alabama at Birmingham led by Valerie Tarn, MS, RD, LD, training director of the Pediatric Pulmonary Center (PPC), launched a survey to assess how families and clinicians felt about televisits in the pulmonary clinic. “We wanted to evaluate our services and get feedback from our families since many have children with special healthcare needs that require multiple visits per year,” she said. “We wondered if we could do telehealth for every other visit in some populations.”
They surveyed families that had already had a televisit (most used their phones) and those that hadn’t, as well as clinicians who participated in the televisits, to see what, if any, barriers existed as well as collect demographic information.
Most families who had participated in telehealth said they would like to continue for some, but not all, visits. The greatest advantages were avoiding COVID-19 infection and not having to drive to the hospital. The latter is particularly important, Tarn said, since many families drive an hour or more to the clinic. As one parent commented, “This has been wonderful experience! I don’t have to worry about exposing her to COVID or the flu, which is very dangerous for my child. Hope to be able to continue this service in the future!”
About 90 percent of families that hadn’t had a pulmonary televisit reported having Internet access. When asked about potential disadvantages to such visits, they noted the inability to conduct a physical exam. As one parent wrote, “Please allow the patient to have a choice as to whether or not the appointment is to be in-person or a telehealth appointment.”
Clinicians agreed that telehealth was probably here to stay, Tarn said, but they wanted a more consistent structure. That included prescreening families and finding ways to incorporate other members of the health care team into the visit. “A lot of our patients need to see other health professionals,” she said. “How do you get them to talk with the pharmacist or social worker or nutritionist?” In the spring, the doctors were typically emailing other clinicians or leaving a message in the patient’s secure medical record about the need for follow up.
In the cystic fibrosis clinic, however, nutritionists, social workers, and other allied health professionals rotatedthrough the visit, each taking turns with the iPad. “That worked fairly smoothly,” Tarn said, and could provide a model for other pulmonary clinics.
In the future, the clinicians noted, it would be helpful if patients had home equipment available, such as spirometers, peak flow meters, and weight scales.
But overall, Tarn said, families and healthcare professionals liked telehealth. Now that the surveys have been collected, the PPC trainees plan to present the research results to an interprofessional audience at a local or regional conference.