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March 18, 2024 Focus | Health Care

As telehealth popularity persists, CT sees growth of virtual care clinics

PHOTOS | CONTRIBUTED A look inside a Hartford HealthCare/OnMed virtual care clinic in Killingly, located at a Stop & Shop grocery store.

Hartford HealthCare has launched a second OnMed telehealth site in the Capital City, after opening its first virtual care clinic in Killingly in late 2023.

Through a partnership with medical technology company OnMed, Hartford HealthCare says its new clinic offers a range of non-emergency services in a completely virtual setting, where clinicians appear on-screen from a remote location.

Virtual care sites, such as OnMed and DOCSNow through Yale New Haven Health, were borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which proliferated the use of telehealth. Experts say the concept has staying power.

The first Hartford HealthCare OnMed location opened in December in the Stop & Shop supermarket in Killingly.

Patients ages 2 and up can use an OnMed Care Station, which is open seven days a week with no appointment needed.

When patients visit the clinic, they are prompted to register and follow instructions on using the OnMed medical equipment to take vital measurements like weight and blood pressure. Patients consult with licensed, clinical professionals through a virtual connection in real time.

Hartford HealthCare said an OnMed station can address myriad ailments such as infections, respiratory issues, headaches, heartburn or allergies.

Debra Hayes, chief integration officer for Hartford HealthCare, said the OnMed stations are about expanding access to healthcare services.

“If you’re sick, it’s challenging to get a primary care appointment,” Hayes said. “So, we’ve been working hard to create alternative, innovative, more affordable options so that patients can actually get the care when they need it, when they’re sick.”

Technology advancements

Hartford HealthCare and OnMed plan to open at least three clinics in Connecticut. The second location is at nonprofit The Village for Families and Children’s Wethersfield Avenue office in Hartford. A third location has not yet been identified.

Hayes cited a multifaceted approach to selecting locations, with one in a grocery store in a more rural part of the state where healthcare centers are sparse and busy.

The Village clinic brings healthcare services to underserved communities in a more urban setting. It’s available not only to patients and families that utilize the Village’s services, but also to those in the surrounding community, Hayes said. Insurance is accepted for the clinic but not required.

The clinics are not meant for emergency or life-threatening situations, Hayes said, and patients requiring more advanced care for ailments or immunizations can get referrals from the OnMed providers.

The concept is similar to virtual health clinics launched in 2023 by Yale New Haven Health and DOCSNow, but that model features a technician taking vital signs and checking for ailments with a doctor tuning in to consult virtually.

The Hartford HealthCare OnMed model doesn’t require a technician to be on hand.

During a typical OnMed visit, which lasts approximately 30 minutes, a patient logs in and a medical assistant comes on screen. He or she will capture key vitals, such as weight, blood pressure and oxygen levels. The clinics have high-definition cameras and medical equipment — for looking into ears and throats or listening to hearts or lungs — that descend from the ceiling.

A virtual medical technician directs patients how to use the tools.

“It’s incredibly high technology. It’s very innovative,” Hayes said. “This is actually the future of health care.”

Sticky trend

The telehealth concept goes back decades, but it saw explosive growth in the months following the pandemic.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that telehealth visits increased from 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020 during the pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 37% of adults used telemedicine in 2021, and virtual care use among physicians went from 15% in 2019, to 86% in 2021.

As COVID-era restrictions eased, the use of telehealth did subside somewhat, but experts say it remains a more popular option — for convenience, safety and access — compared to pre-pandemic times.

That’s pushed state policymakers to alter laws that govern the use of telehealth in Connecticut several times since 2020, including provisions that expanded service delivery methods and the types of providers authorized to provide virtual care.

This year, the legislature is considering a bill that would extend COVID-era telehealth provisions until June 30, 2027. The provisions, which relaxed some telehealth rules, are set to expire in June.

The bill has several components. It requires telehealth providers to communicate with patients through real-time, interactive and two-way technology, and have knowledge of a patient’s medical history. It also permits telehealth providers to prescribe medication, but only certain controlled substances.

Extending telehealth access is important, Hayes said, especially in the face of nationwide nursing and provider shortages. About 100,000 registered nurses left the U.S. workforce during the past two years due to stress, burnout and retirements, and another 610,388 reported intentions to leave by 2027, according to a study by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

Patients face other obstacles to accessing care, like long waits to see a primary care physician, lack of proximity to doctors’ offices in some communities, or difficulty getting transportation to an appointment.

That’s where telehealth services and virtual care clinics can help fill access gaps, Hayes said.

Short-term support

Saud Anwar

State Sen. Saud Anwar (D-South Windsor), who is a physician and co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said telehealth has proven benefits, including convenience and providing better access to care. Virtual care can be especially helpful in helping address some mental health-related issues.

However, despite its many benefits, patients should be careful not to make telehealth their default treatment option.

Telehealth is a short-term, intermittent support for certain circumstances, he said, and doesn’t take the place of meeting regularly with a primary care physician or specialist who knows a patient more thoroughly.

“The best care is in-person care,” Anwar said, “so we should not make telehealth the main way of providing care to individuals.”

Hayes said there’s a balance to getting the best from both options.

“The bottom line is there are going to be many things where you actually need to be face-to-face with a provider, and we recognize that,” she said. “But, if there are concerns that we can help patients with, that don’t require an in-person visit, it’s actually much more convenient for the patient.”

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