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Telehealth Visits Help and Reassure Families During Natural Disasters


Patricia A. Solo-Josephson, MD, FAAP
November 12, 2018

With two major hurricanes striking our state in as many years, many Florida families know all too well what to do when a violent storm heads our way. But once homes, businesses and even medical facilities are safely evacuated, what do you do if your child becomes ill or needs care?

 

In Florida and in other parts of the country, rapidly expanding telehealth services hold great potential to give families access to care when they might otherwise go without--because of barriers such as distance, or disaster.

 

Three years ago, I began working in the telemedicine division for a children’s health system that serves 5 East Coast states. The following year, Hurricane Irma barreled along a direct path to Florida as one of the strongest storms ever recorded over the Atlantic. Our system was among at least 5 health organizations to offer free audio-visual telemedicine visits to hurricane victims, according to a RAND study.

Dr. Patricia Solo-Josephson describes how rapidly expanding telehealth services can help overcome access barriers for families during natural disasters, when fear and anxiety are at their peak. #AAPvoices

Three days before Hurricane Irma was expected to make landfall, the 6-member telemedicine team was debriefed with the disaster preparedness plan. The goal was for us to be available for children and their families in response to the hurricane’s impact. We would provide families with access to a pediatrician, one of us, 24/7 via an audio/video model.

As we awaited the direct impact of the hurricane, fear began to set in. The day before the storm made landfall in the Florida Keys, it became challenging to keep up with the volume of calls. With mandatory evacuations underway, some parents were panicked.

One mother called because her son had stitches placed a few days earlier on his foot. With the urgent care location closed because of the hurricane, her son removed the stitches himself. Now, the wound was red and tender.

Another parent called because her daughter had been sick with a cold for over a week, but now was developing a fever. Her doctor’s office was closed, and she didn’t know what to do. Waiting in the queue was a mom was concerned about her 2-year-old son. His eczema was flaring up. Another parent worried about her child’s barky cough. I provided guidance, support, and many times reassurance as the day progressed. I refilled chronic medications for asthmatics and helped families by triaging pressing medical questions.


"The goal was for us to be available for children and their families in response to the hurricane’s impact. We would provide families with access to a pediatrician, one of us, 24/7 via an audio/video model.


After several hours of answering calls, my own power went out, as I also live in Florida. I was nervous. Would patients have someone to call? Health system staff quickly notified one of our team pediatricians who lived up north, unaffected by the storm. The care continued seamlessly. Having back up pediatricians on standby was the key to continuous care.

Hurricane Irma left over 7 million homes without power, and significant flooding left many families isolated without access to healthcare. During that week, our volume of calls increased over 1,000 percent. The team worked hard and was grateful we could provide care to hundreds of children whose parents called during Hurricane Irma -- an effort that was repeated this year during Hurricane Michael when we provided telemedicine visits to families in shelters.

Hurricanes, along with other natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, are unpredictable in nature. Though we may have improved methods of knowing when we’re in their path, we usually have little time to prepare for these inevitable events. Telemedicine serves as a tool to prepare and as a means to overcome health access barriers when fear and anxiety are at their peak.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author


Patricia Solo-Josephson, MD, FAAP, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Telehealth Care and the Northeast Florida Medical Society, works in the Telemedicine Division at Nemours Children’s Health System. Dr. Solo-Josephson is also former Vice Chair of the Partnership Board for Child Health and former Chair of Jacksonville’s Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Board. She is co-author of the abstract, “Pediatric Telemedicine Response to a Natural Disaster" which was presented during the AAP’s 2018 Pediatrics for the 21st Century Program, “Leveraging New Technologies to Transform Child Health.”






Additional Information

Disaster Preparedness (AAP.org)

AAP Section on Telehealth Care