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COVID-19 advances what some call 'overdue' telehealth options for seniors

Most Maine practitioners are offering telehealth for patients during the coronavirus pandemic -- but companies like Senscio Systems are calling for a lasting shift.

MAINE, USA — The coronavirus pandemic has changed aspects of life as we knew it for many of us. That includes what health care looks like in the days of doctor's office and hospital restrictions. 

"We have totally revolutionized the way we've done business here at Acadia," Joshua Bridges, a family and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Northern Light Acadia Hospital, told NEWS CENTER Maine.

Bridges says that in the course of a week in mid-March, the facility completely moved all of its services online to a telehealth format. Bridges works in geriatric care and says this shift has been primarily positive.

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"To be able to join an online meeting for a 20 or 30 minute visit is much more convenient for them," Bridges explained, noting that some of his patients come from cities and towns hours away, like Calais. 

Mental and physical health are both major components in senior health care, especially while many are isolated during COVID-19. Bridges says that Zoom meetings on a secure platform help seniors connect with their doctors and keep loved ones up to date.

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Telehealth, though, is not a new concept -- in fact, Piali De, CEO of New England-based company 'Sensio Systems', says the switch is long overdue. Sensio focuses on at-home care for seniors with chronic health conditions.

"We’re creating this totally virtual component of the healthcare system, which now of course in this day and age, everybody is saying, 'Telehealth, telehealth, telehealth!'" De expressed. "We’ve been saying it for 10 years."

Senscio offers something called the 'Ibis device', a tablet that helps seniors monitor their health conditions daily. Artificial intelligence plans the user's day and helps them figure out what they need to do. The program also provides a virtual care team (based out of offices in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts) made up of a member advocate, R.N.s, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians assistants, and physicians. 

The Ibis device works in support of primary care physicians and other specialists -- so, all information recorded can be transferred for future appointments.

"Health care really is all about what we can do for ourselves in the home," De said, "Especially when it comes to the chronic care piece of it."

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Claus Hamann is the chief health officer of Senscio Systems. He says the coronavirus pandemic has, in a way, been helpful in spreading the company's message.

“We needed something to push us over the tipping point, and I think (telehealth) certainly has gone from nice to have to need to have," Hamann expressed.

Susan Fowler agrees. She has been using the Ibis device for about a year and a half and lives alone in an affordable housing community in Portland.

"It allows me to validate that I want to be independent, that I still have the ability to be independent," Fowler explained via Zoom to NEWS CENTER Maine. 

Now, a major conversation in the health care industry revolves around what telehealth options could look like after the coronavirus pandemic. The CARES Act provided funding for health care providers to bring connected care to patients' homes. Now, through Medicare Part B, the Ibis device is free for users.

Some practitioners are hoping this pandemic will be a catalyst for lasting change.

"Sometimes it takes an emergency like this to really advance technology," Bridges said.

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