By Jessie Wagoner
Therapy services, like almost everything in society, have changed due to COVID-19. Telehealth is becoming a popular way for clients to connect with their providers to access both medical and mental health services.
“I had never had a telehealth appointment until COVID-19,” Sasha Lyons of McPherson said. “Then COVID-19 happened and I still needed to see the doctor; I still needed to participate in family therapy with my child. So we jumped into telehealth, and I’ve been very pleased.”
Lyons says the first experience with telehealth was a little challenging. Learning to navigate Zoom tested her patience at first, but now it is a quick and painless process. Ruth Brooks of Moundridge agrees telehealth was originally something she was nervous about, but now she is an old pro.
“The first appointment was a mess because I’m not too comfortable with technology,” Brooks said. “Once I figured out how to turn on the video and the microphone, it went much better. I hope we can keep doing telehealth even when COVID-19 is over. I like the flexibility of it and being able to stay home and not get a babysitter for my kids.”
Patrick Flaming, RN, BSN, Director of Access Services at Prairie View, says telehealth has allowed their clients, both new and existing, to seek mental health treatment in a way not previously available to them. When the pandemic first hit, the organization saw a fairly significant decline in the number of clients seeking treatment. However, as restrictions have eased, those numbers have increased.
“While some individuals prefer meeting with their clinician face-to-face, telehealth has also opened additional doors and allowed those who have felt uncomfortable seeking services to reach out for help,” Flaming said.
President and CEO of Prairie View Jessie Kaye says telehealth has helped many of their patients overcome barriers to treatment. Oftentimes patients have difficulty navigating transportation, availability and affordability of child care and the ability to take time away from work. Telehealth provides flexibility to help ease some of those barriers.
“Their engagement in treatment can be strengthened through this improved access, which would certainly lead to better outcomes,” Kaye said.
This sentiment was echoed by Brooks, who says telehealth has saved her time and money.
“I don’t have to pay for a babysitter now to go to appointments, which is nice,” Brooks said. “I schedule them around their nap times. I haven’t had to miss an appointment since telehealth started. Sometimes in the past I would have to cancel at the last minute because my babysitter fell through. I think telehealth is more reliable for me.”
Prairie View and many medical providers are now scheduling both in-person and telehealth appointments. It is unknown how long telehealth will be able to continue. Flaming says that is largely dependent on insurance companies. Some third-party payers have already set end-dates as to when they will no longer cover telehealth services, while others continue to offer the service.
“We are hopeful that a positive to come out of this experience is that insurance companies will recognize the benefits that telehealth services can offer people,” Flaming said.
Additionally, establishing telehealth services was a large financial impact on the organizations. Acquiring the necessary technology came with a hefty price tag. Prairie View, like most businesses and organizations, has been financially impacted by the pandemic. They have had to furlough some employees, and some positions were eliminated.
“We are grateful to the Central Kansas Community Foundation and other charitable funders for awarding us some grants to purchase essential items such as gowns, masks and technology,” Flaming said.
“We very much appreciate this assistance, but it doesn’t come close to covering our additional costs of investments in technology or lost revenue from lower service volumes and shorter appointment times,” Kaye said. “We are hopeful that federal relief funds will be beneficial to our financial challenges.”
Lyons has already reached out to her insurance company to express her desire to keep telehealth services in the future.
“I don’t know if the insurance companies will listen, but I wanted them to know how helpful this has been,” Lyons said. “I hope they will continue to cover the services.”