Getting thousands of Houston-area families to shelters has been a massive humanitarian effort. But the aid doesn’t end there: Many of the displaced have chronic medical conditions like asthma or injuries from recent days that need medical attention.
Providers of telemedicine are hoping technology can help step into the breach. At Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, which has begun to take residents displaced by flooding in Houston, emergency-room doctors at Children’s Health, a pediatric hospital based in Dallas, are seeing young patients remotely.
“For every adult that comes in, there will be about three children,” explained Scott Summerall, spokesperson for Children’s Health. “We have doctors for adults available at the shelter 24 hours a day, but we don’t have as many pediatric specialists, especially at night.”
And it’s thanks to a recently passed law that it’s even possible: In May, Texas became the last U.S. state to allow physicians to see patients by telemedicine without an initial in-person visit.
At the Dallas convention center, patients are slowly trickling in, many of them delayed by still-flooded roads. Plans for the “mega-shelter,” however, indicate that could house up to 5,000 people in coming days and weeks.
In preparation for that, Children’s Health has set up a telemedicine station from which ER physicians at the hospital can remotely see children at the shelter, via a computer monitor and specially designed equipment for measuring vital signs. The telemedicine station has been in use since Monday.
“We expect to see a lot of rashes and infections,” said Dr. Stormee Williams, who oversees telemedicine at Children’s Health, and who is working on-site at the shelter.
She added that flood conditions, like mold in flooded homes, can exacerbate conditions such as asthma. In addition, floodwater may carry viruses and bacteria from dead animals, chemicals, and other contaminants that could cause serious health problems in children if they swallowed it.
“There’s also behavioral health issues,” Williams added. “Children are susceptible to anxiety and depression, especially in a time like this. ”
And the Dallas shelter will eventually house a pharmacy, which should enable parents to fill their kids prescriptions on-site.
Dr. Maeve Sheehan, a pediatrician at Children’s Health, is another of the physicians on-site at the convention center. Telemedicine has helped both the medical and nonmedical workers at the site, Sheehan said.
“We have a lot of volunteers here, and people, especially kids, get sick at night. This way they can be in touch with emergency room doctors whenever they need help.”
That, Sheehan said, is a notable improvement over disaster response teams she’s worked on in the past. “We didn’t have telemedicine for Katrina,” she said. “I was on [call] all night. This time, I don’t have to be. Telemedicine makes a big difference.”
Williams said she’s seen an outpouring of support from fellow physicians in the days since the storm hit.
“We have doctors around the country calling in and saying, ‘I use telemedicine. How can I help?’ But because they are laws and rules about who can practice where, unless they have a license in Texas, they can’t do it,” she said.
Still Williams hopes that the Harvey response efforts will be the beginning of telemedicine as a regular part of disaster recovery.
“I’m really excited that we’re doing this,” said Williams. “This is an example of how telemedicine can be used in the most extreme situations, when health care is most needed.”