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Colorado's 'urgent' ask for health care providers: Please donate time for telehealth

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has an urgent ask for more medical professionals to volunteer to offer telehealth for free.

DENVER — The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has an urgent ask for more medical professionals to donate their time to provide telehealth for free. 

On the state's COVID-19 online landing, in bold lettering, says:

Colorado urgently needs medical professionals and administrators to donate their time to provide free telehealth visits. This work will be performed entirely from home, primarily via telephone and/or video calls. Callers will provide their symptoms over the phone, and those who need medical attention will be triaged to a queue for telephone-based care.

So why the need for telehealth during a pandemic?

The word of advice since the beginning of the outbreak has consistently been to opt for telehealth when possible to avoid going to doctor's offices and clinics in person. This is to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. 

Within Kaiser Permanent, it seems people have been listening. 

"Ask me this three months ago, I would tell you 80 to 90 percent of our patients we are seeing in a face-to-face environment, the clinic -- usual environment," said Dr. Thomas Rehring. "In a couple of weeks, we flipped that." 

Rehring is a cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente, as well as the Colorado Permanente Medical Group's vice president and chief experience officer. He said throughout the pandemic, a lot of patients have been talking to their health care providers over the phone, but in the last week, the number of people opting to video chat has spiked from a handful a day to hundreds. 

While Kaiser was already set up to offer telehealth on multiple platforms, the state changed rules because of the pandemic to make access easier by allowing phone calls, as well as video chatting over Facebook Messenger and Skype to count within telehealth. That means health care providers can get reimbursed when using these platforms. 

"The state has really tried everything that it can to expand the ability for Coloradans to use telehealth," said Jeff Bontrager. He is with the Colorado Health Institute and has been studying how effective the state's policies have been in encouraging and expanding access to telehealth. 

Bontrager said allowing normal phone calls to count within telehealth access helped remove a previous barrier to successfully using this service: internet access, particularly in some rural parts of Colorado. 

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For weeks, the state has been asking for health care provider volunteers. From Bontrager's recent analysis, he said the state is trying to be mindful of pressures on health care workers on the frontlines. 

"They're really trying to appeal to people who may not be practicing medicine but may be trained and in good standing," said Bontrager. "Trying to get people who retired, retired doctors, or people whose license is inactive  for some reason -- maybe they are teaching as opposed to practicing or again out of state clinicians." 

Setting up telehealth across the state has been a challenge. Not all health care facilities and offices had the technology to do so right away.

The reason the state is asking for donated time might tie into job loss.

While many insurance companies cover telehealth, whether you have to pay out of pocket depends on what kind of insurance you have and the reason you need the appointment. With that said, more than 300,000 people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last five weeks, and with job loss comes the loss of work-affiliated health insurance. Bontrager said the state's ask for medical professional volunteers to help with telehealth could be another way they are trying to make sure people get the help they need. 

As for those on the front lines, Rehring said health care professionals are ready and willing to go above and beyond. 

"There is a mission mindset," he said. "A feeling of a higher calling that people are willing to go above and beyond to help in any way they can."

On its website, the state detailed insurance coverage for telehealth under different insurance plans. 

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