The telehealth program offered by Community Nurses, Inc. provides patients with certain medical issues a means of remaining in the comfort of their own homes while continuing to have their conditions monitored daily. The telehealth program was implemented in 2002 and is available to residents of Elk, McKean and Cameron counties.
Telehealth Coordinator Michele Uplinger explained that the main goal of the telehealth program is to provide a means of checking in with patients when a member of the Community Nurses staff cannot physically be in the home.
"There are a lot of diagnoses that we use the telehealth program for, and basically it just allows us to check [the patient's] blood pressure, their pulse, their weight, and sometimes their blood sugar. It sends all that information through so that we can keep an eye on them when the nurse isn't there," Uplinger said.
The telehealth units consist of a touch-screen monitor with several add-ons which are used to check a patient's blood pressure, weight and pulse oxygen level on a daily basis. It is typically meant to be used in the morning. It also asks patients a series of simple questions about how they are feeling and what symptoms they have. Once completed, the machine transmits the results to Uplinger, who monitors them.
"People's condition(s) can change rapidly in between visits, and when the nurse monitors these vital signs that are necessary every day, it helps keep them from going to the emergency room or going to the hospital because they catch problems that are happening long before they normally would be caught, which benefits everybody," Uplinger said.
She also added that it is very important to treat the patient, not the numbers.
"For whatever reason, a patient might be coughing really hard during their blood pressure (reading) and it will give you a reading that just isn't accurate. So my first thing is, I call them: 'How are you feeling? Let's repeat the blood pressure,' for example. If it is in fact still real high, my next step would be, depending on how high, either call the nurse to make a visit or call the physician. A lot of times the physician will say just tell them to take an extra blood pressure pill," Uplinger said.
Physicians can also set up protocols for the nurses to follow if a patient is exhibiting certain symptoms, allowing nurses to immediately react to the situation instead of having to wait to contact the physician.
The time span between a person being referred to the program and having the telehealth unit set up in their home can range from a few hours to a few days, though there is typically a quick turnaround time. At any given time, there are between 50 and 80 people of all ages using the telehealth program to monitor a variety of ailments, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), diabetes, asthma, and hypertension.
"The majority [of the individuals who use the telehealth program] are elderly, but we've had some very young people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or really bad asthma or hypertension that we've had on," Uplinger said.
She added that the program can only accommodate a maximum of 80 people because those are all the units that they have available.
Telehealth technician Jim Giazzoni is responsible for setting up the telehealth unit in each patient's home and making sure he or she is comfortable using the system.
"Once in a while we'll get a hesitation because [the patient hears] 'computer' and that's intimidating to the elderly sometimes, but Jim shows them it's just a touchscreen. It talks you right through it verbally, as well as on the screen. It's very simple to use. If they're still not able to [use the machine] due to arthritis or whatnot, often there's a caregiver or family member that will help them," Uplinger said.
Each telehealth unit is connected to a regular phone line in the patient's home, which allows them to transmit the patient's information to Uplinger each day.