Hurricane season is swinging into full gear again as this week’s natural threat, Hurricane Florence, makes landfall in the US Southeast. Between the gusting winds and “catastrophic flash flooding” heralded by meteorologists, the Category 2 storm threatens to leave emergency responders and local health care systems overwhelmed.
Fortunately, these groups will have some support. Much like in storms past, a number of telehealth vendors and telemedicine-equipped providers have pledged their services to residents affected by the storms.
“One of telehealth’s biggest powers is its ability to beam care instantly to where its most needed. Often this ‘superpower’ is used for convenience, but when a disaster strikes, like Hurricanes in the southeast, a flood in Houston or area fires in California, telehealth can mean the difference between being stranded and getting the care you need,” Dr. Roy Schoenberg, CEO at American Well, said in an email statement. “We are proud to bring healthcare to patients when forces of nature prevent regular access.”
According to American Well, a number of its payer and provider clients have launched free visits to those living in high-impact regions. Anthem, Atrium (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System), certain Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, Beufort, BonSecours, Cigna, Hawaii Medical Service Association, McLeod, and Nemours Children’s Health System have all opened their virtual doors to residents via coupon codes or no-cost systems, with some free services such as Anthem’s available through mid-December.
Outside of the American Well web, virtual care vendor MDLive announced today that affected residents will be able to access free telephone or video visits by providing the code “Florence” when scheduling a consultation, while Doctor On Demand will be supporting free visits through its platform with the code “FLORENCE2018” until Sept. 30. On the care provider side, UNC Health Care recently put out word that its own virtual service will be openly available through the weekend with the code “UNCFLORENCE2018”.
“As we said when this service launched, the virtual technology fits with our mission of providing care to all North Carolinians at any time,” Dr. Bill Roper, CEO of UNC Health Care, said in a statement. “We believe waiving fees for UNC Urgent Care 24-7 is a concrete way for our health care system to serve North Carolinians during Hurricane Florence.”
In the wake of last year’s back-to-back storms, a number of telehealth vendors and provider organizations explained to MobiHealthNews how these services have improved their disaster preparedness infrastructures with each subsequent emergency.
So far, these decisions to open up care appear to make an impact — an analysis of Doctor On Demand’s administrative data that was conducted earlier this year by the RAND Corporation suggests that these services are highly used in the days following a disaster by those trying to avoid an interruption in their routine care.
"Relying on direct-to-consumer telehealth services may help relieve the immediate burden on local health care system so that limited in-person care resources can be reserved for those patients with the greatest need … although it does require that certain infrastructure like cellular service and Wi-Fi remain intact,” Lori Uscher-Pines, senior policy researcher at RAND and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.