EVERETT — Many patients who visit Community Health Centers of Snohomish County can’t afford a phone or computer, meaning they can’t always connect with their doctors through virtual visits.
This month the clinic received a donation of dozens of electronic devices from TeleHealth Access for Seniors, a national nonprofit started by a group of high school and college students at the beginning of the pandemic.
Seniors are especially vulnerable to the virus. Yet they still need to make their doctor appointments during the pandemic.
Nhu Nguyen, 22, of Edmonds, is a co-leader for the Washington chapter of the student group. She attends the University of Washington, majoring in public health and biology. She hopes the computers are not only used for doctor visits but also to see other people.
“We know, especially with seniors, they are not able to go out and see family,” Nguyen said. “So having that virtual connection, seeing their face with family members would really help with combating social isolation.”
Completing an appointment through video is much better than talking on the phone, said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Tocher of Community Health Centers. The patient can show what is bothering them, and the doctor can see facial expressions and other body language.
“It’s very frustrating when you can’t connect or the video freezes up and you have to convert to phone,” he said. “And of course, our patients often don’t have money to buy these nice devices, so this is a real gift to them.”
TeleHealth Access for Seniors, established in March, is now in 26 states. So far, 425 people have become volunteers and 3,000 devices have been delivered to about 105 hospitals and clinics across the country. They’re supported by people donating cash or working electronics that are equipped with a camera.
The organization reached out to Community Health Centers of Snohomish County, with seven clinics in Arlington, Everett, Lynnwood and Edmonds. They donated 21 devices.
This was the first donation the group has made in Snohomish County.
Computers are expected to go home with patients who are at highest risk of severe health problems if they contract the virus. Around 10% of all appointments at the clinic are now virtual, Tocher said.
“Community Health Centers were not able to bill for telehealth before the COVID epidemic came,” he said. “So we had no experience until March, then we had to start it very suddenly and so it was a very new thing for us going from zero to 60 almost overnight.”
TeleHealth Access for Seniors aims to get devices to older adults or those who are considered low income.
Instructions for how to use the devices are on the organization’s website, telehealthforseniors.org. Topics include how to set up an email account, connect to Wi-Fi and start a video call. Multiple languages are available.
Three college students run the Washington chapter of TeleHealth Access for Seniors. Nguyen decided to take this year off due to the pandemic for a more normal senior year when she returns. Grace Chen, 21, lives in Bellevue and is a senior at Yale University, majoring in biology as well as history of science and medicine. Katie Li, 20, lives in Redmond and is a junior at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in public health and biology.
All three Washington leaders started volunteering with the program in the the summer. It hasn’t always been easy.
“I think what I’m most proud of about this organization is somehow we have been able to make it feel like a community, even though we have only seen each other in person two to three times,” Chen said. “Every once in a while we have an in-person drop off that’s outdoors and distanced and masked, and outside of that it’s all Zoom meetings and being on Facebook messenger.”
While most of the work has been coordinated online, it has been nice to make new friends and feel like part of a team, she said.
All three believe telehealth is here to stay, even when the pandemic ends.
“As long as people need telehealth-enabled devices, I hope we will be there working to provide them,” Li said.
How to help
TeleHealth Access for Seniors needs volunteers and donations. Visit telehealthforseniors.org for more information.
To give cash, click “Donate Funds” on the website to be redirected to the group’s GoFundMe page. Be sure to specify what state you would like your donation to go to.
Correction: An earlier version misstated the number of devices donated by TeleHealth Access for Seniors.