Two of Kern's most prominent health-care providers said Monday they are looking to make greater use of telemedicine, joining a national acceleration in the use of videoconferencing to connect doctors and patients without unnecessary risks of infection during the pandemic.
Kaiser Permanente Kern County said it hopes to maximize its use of video and audio appointments as it consolidates "face-to-face care" into fewer offices locally. Separately, Clinica Sierra Vista announced its adoption of a virtual platform using the popular videoconferencing software Zoom.
Kaiser and Clinica emphasized the idea is to limit physical interaction where appropriate and that they will continue to see patients in person as necessary during the coronavirus emergency.
"We are doing a hybrid model. Depending upon the patient’s health need we determine if we can treat in person or over telehealth," Clinica spokeswoman Cassandra Martinez said by email. "It is dependent upon the patient and their medical condition."
The moves follow Dignity Health Mercy and Memorial Hospitals' March 20 launch of a "virtual urgent care service" free to anyone in the community experiencing mild to moderate symptoms that might be caused by the new coronavirus.
Dignity Health said in a news release anyone experiencing severe symptoms of respiratory illness, such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, should call 9-1-1 or visit the nearest care site. It encouraged people to call their medical facility in advance to notify personnel of any COVID-19 symptoms before arriving in person.
Telemedicine, or telehealth, makes use of technology that was being rolled out gradually but which suddenly makes more sense during the pandemic. Seeing a nurse or physician over the phone averts the need for sick or vulnerable people to congregate inside the same building.
A 2019 physician survey found that adoption of telemedicine increased 340 percent in the United States between 2015 and 2018, but that at the end of that period, still only 22 percent of doctors had used telemedicine technology to see patients.
That rate is likely to jump during the pandemic.
Last week's $2.2 billion federal stimulus makes it easier for Medicare beneficiaries to get telemedicine and relaxes insurance-related restrictions on people using virtual doctor visits. The measure also sets aside money to increase remote medical care available to veterans and improve rural clinics' access to telemedicine.
Kaiser said by email the telemedicine push coincides with the closure of its medical offices at 3700 Mall View Road and 4801 Coffee Road. Those operations with be folded into other locations, it said.
It has also closed its vision care services at The Marketplace and said optometry and ophthalmology services will now be provided out of its Chester Avenue medical office building.
During this consolidation, it said, members with in-person appointments will be directed where to go for medical attention. It said its urgent care at the Stockdale Medical Office Building, 3501 Stockdale Highway, will remain open. Members requiring COVID-19 tests are being directed to a drive-thru testing station, it said.
Members can order prescriptions online for mail delivery and that curb-side prescription pick-up will begin in some locations next week, it said. It directed members to call its appointment and advice line, 877-524-7373, or securely email their doctor with questions about ongoing care needs.
“I want to assure everyone Kaiser Permanente is open and providing care and quickly adapting to the challenges generated by the COVID-19 virus," Kaiser's senior vice president in Kern, David Womack, said in an emailed statement. "The safety and well-being of our members, the community and our physicians and staff are our highest priority.”
Clinica, in its announcement, said people in Kern and Fresno counties can now get live attention 24 hours a day with a medical provider certified in primary care, pediatrics, OBGYN, behavioral health or dental care.
Regardless of patients' ability to pay, Clinica said it will deploy its MyChart Virtual Visit with Zoom to provide chronic disease management for diabetes, hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as treatment for acute conditions like sore throat, stomachache, earache and fever.
"Medical providers can diagnose patients, prescribe medications and suggest follow-up care when it is appropriate," Clinica said in a news release. "If follow-up care or further testing is necessary, CSV Anywhere Care providers will refer patients back to their regular CSV care team — or can recommend a new CSV physician when a new relationship is needed."
Dignity advised anyone wanting to use its service to visit www.dignityhealth.org/virtualcareanywhere or download the Virtual Care Anywhere app or call 855-356-8053 and use the coupon code COVID19. It said patients may have to wait half an hour or more to get an appointment, depending on call volume.
Although the service has a fee of $35 per visit, the company said the fee will be waived for any patients who think they may be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.