By Erin Freeman | Lynnwood Times Staff
Local students are fostering accessible healthcare for senior and low-income communities throughout the coronavirus pandemic with donated devices, virtually connecting them with their practitioners.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth- or virtually facilitated healthcare-related services- has grown as a popular alternative to in-person visits in efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
And yet, the growing recommendations from doctor’s offices for patients to use telehealth services have revealed accessibility disparities within low-income and senior communities. Recognizing it, a nonprofit named TeleHealth Access for Seniors is addressing these barriers.
Snohomish County resident and University of Washington senior Nhu H. Nguyen is one of the Washington State co-leads for the entirely student-led nonprofit organization collecting and donating used video-enabled smartphones and tablets to health clinics and Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.
Double majoring in Public Health-Global Health and Biology, the curriculum in Nyguyn’s public health courses on the country’s systemic health inequalities and their impact on marginalized communities, influenced a passion for working towards the reduction of inequitable healthcare, leading to his participation in TeleHealth Access for Seniors.
“As virtual care and telehealth services become the new normal as a result of COVID-19, gaps in health care access are only being exacerbated,” said Nguyen. “After learning about TeleHealth Access for Seniors and its focus on serving vulnerable populations, including elderly and low-income patients, I immediately got involved without a second thought.”
In the United States, millions of older adults live in poverty, unable to afford thevideo-enabled devices necessary to attend their doctor appointments. According to TeleHealth for Seniors, reliable and safe access to healthcare is essential for managing the health of the 85% of older adults that have at least one chronic condition, with that management even more so crucial during the pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older adults, especially those with underlying medical conditions, are at the highest risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19. Kathy Nguyen, a TeleHealth Access for Seniors Volunteer and UW junior majoring in Neuroscience, says that these chronic conditions often require patients continuous access to health care, but yet as they are the most vulnerable population in the ongoing pandemic, many are unable to visit a doctor’s office due to the risk of coronavirus exposure.
With more and more healthcare providers transitioning their practices online amid the pandemic, telehealth services provide a good solution to the dilemma. Telehealth minimizes the need for in-person care and thus helps patients avoid exposure to coronavirus,” said Nguyen.
Since TeleHealth Access for Senior’s founding in March, the accumulation of 325 high school and college student volunteers across 26 states have partnered with 92 clinics nationwide, donating 2,000 devices and raising $85,000 to purchase more. Within Washington, they’ve donated over 60 devices to International Community Health Services in Seattle, currently working to collect 80 more to fulfill demand.
When establishing a new partnership with a clinic, volunteers ask that they identify their patients without access to a video-enabled smart device, as well as research their clinic’s demand for the devices and the required technical specifications for their telehealth platforms. To obtain the devices to donate, the organization collects used smartphones, tablets, and laptops from individuals and organizations, and also relies on fundraising to purchase brand new affordable tablets. On the national level, they have coordinated fundraising events such as a virtual 5K run, a debate tournament, and a quiz bowl competition to raise not only funds to purchase tablets but also awareness about the importance of telehealth. After gathering an abundance of devices, the volunteers will dedicate a day to drop them off at the partner clinic, where they will then be distributed to the identified patients in need by the clinic staff.
Recognizing that the use of new technologies may pose a challenge for older adults, the organization also equips the device recipients with instructional guides and offers a technical support helpline that is available seven days a week. A translation team translates these guides into several languages including Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Korean, and is working on additional languages to serve an even broader and more diverse patient population.
Grace Chen, a Washington state Co-Lead and senior at Yale University double majoring in Molecular Biology and History of Science and Medicine, says that while TeleHealth Access for Seniors was founded to address the growing elderly population’s need for quality and consistent access to health care during the pandemic, they’ve begun to notice other existing disparities they could work to resolve.
“We’ve noticed just as dire a need in other low-income and marginalized populations as well,” said Chen. “This includes patients in rural areas, Indigenous peoples, non-English speaking patients, and more.”
Thus, TeleHealth Access for Seniors has partnered with community health clinics across the nation that serves these populations, including International Community Health Services, Community Health Center of Snohomish County which has multiple clinics throughout the County, and HealthPoint with multiple clinics throughout South King County.
Within a post-pandemic world, the organization will strive to continue its work in promoting digital connectivity between patients in need and their healthcare providers.
To make a device donation, you can fill out this Google Form. TeleHealth Access for Seniors Volunteers will then be in touch to coordinate with donors for contactless pickup/shipping. Those wishing to make a monetary donation can visit their GoFundMe fundraiser. They encourage that you select “Washington TeleHealth A4S” under the “Referred by” section to ensure their donation goes to Washington state. Each $65 allows us to buy a brand new Android tablet for patients in need.