Mercy Iowa City 'expanding' telehealth in rural areas for those without access to reliable internet

Justin Bierman displays a telehealth call with a doctor at a medical clinic in Tipton on...
Justin Bierman displays a telehealth call with a doctor at a medical clinic in Tipton on Monday, April 13, 2020. (Aaron Scheinblum/KCRG)(KCRG)
Published: Apr. 13, 2020 at 5:07 PM CDT
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Due to the threat and spread of the novel coronavirus, more doctors across the state are transitioning to telehealth in an effort to allow people to talk with their doctors over the internet, leading one health care provider to make changes in more rural areas.

"What's neat about this is it kind of breaks down those barriers, that accessibility," Conner Hieder, the manager of the Service Management Office for Mercy Iowa City, said.

For those looking for a doctor during the COVID-19 emergency, there is a chance they will find one. But, rather than in-person, it would come through a screen.

"[It's] something that in the past would have been a several week or several month project was live in four or five days," Justin Bierman, director of health informatics for Mercy Iowa City, said.

Currently, telehealth services through Mercy are sent to a phone or e-mail address with a link. Patients would click on the link when the time for their appointment has arrived, and they would enter a video chat with their doctor.

More rural areas like the Mercy clinic in Tipton had to address an issue: what if someone does not have reliable or even any access to the internet or the necessary technology?

"Rural communities who don't necessarily have the technology in their own homes, what we're doing here is providing that right in the parking lot for them," Hieder said.

Hieder and Bierman teamed up to come up with an idea: expanding their internet service. The connection that is used inside the clinic, like the one in Tipton, now reaches out into the parking lot outside the building. The goal is to allow patients to drive up into the lot, park, and someone from the office will bring out a tablet or other device so that the patient can talk to their doctor from the car.

"When the visit's done, they hand it back over," Bierman said. "We take it in, sanitize the device, and be ready to go for the next patient."

In only a few days, staff said doctors here are already doing more than 10 drive-up visits a day. While it serves as a small sample size, staff said so far the results have been positive. It could even change the way people are cared for, even after the pandemic has passed.

"There's no reason that health care shouldn't catch up to the technology that we have available in being able to care for people anywhere," Hieder said.

Bierman agreed, saying the ease-of-access has the potential to, in a way, reinvent how medicine is offered.

"It's going to be hard to go back to something else after this is all long gone," Bierman said.