One healthcare transformation emerging from the coronavirus crisis is telemedicine which, as one provider put it, is the ultimate social distancing.

As coronavirus crept into Northern California, the same healthcare system everyone depended on for COVID-19 care was being shunned by many would-be patients who preferred to keep their distance.

Now, the future financial health of hospitals and clinics depends on the return of patients, many of whom likely will be drawn to a new way of seeing their doctor using their smartphones and computers.

Patient numbers fall over COVID-19 fears

Hospitals emptied as non-emergency surgeries were postponed because Gov. Gavin Newsom asked hospitals to make way for a surge of COVID-19 patients that didn’t materialize.

But healthcare providers also saw patient visits plummet as fears grew about catching the coronavirus.

One telling example was in early March when a Redding woman went to a local clinic for a COVID-19 test because she had just returned from a Grand Princess cruise and had been in contact with a passenger who later died.

A local TV station broadcast the parking lot exam at Hilltop Medical Clinic as the woman coughed into her shoulder. The news-story footage had an immediate effect on the clinic’s customers. 

“After it aired, not one soul came to the clinic,” said Nancy Sutton Pierce, a health educator and spokeswoman for Hilltop. Her husband, Dr. Mark Pierce, was the one who used swabs to test the woman, whose results later returned negative.

Hilltop immediately switched up its operations, sending regular patients to its clinic across town and using its Hilltop Drive location for respiratory patients.

In Yreka, Fairchild Medical Center CEO Jonathan Andrus noted the number of stroke patients at his ER declined by 50% in April. His message to the population in a hospital video was: “Don’t delay necessary medical care.”

At Mercy Medical Center Mt. Shasta, elective surgeries resumed on May 11 to address the backlog of patients who put procedures on hold during the pandemic. The hospital had strict guidelines in place that required all patients to be tested for COVID-19 and didn’t allow visitors.

After two weeks, the hospital reevaluated and is now allowing more surgeries. They also allow up to two visitors per patient.

At Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding, visits to its emergency department also took a dive in April, from 3,600 people to 2,100. Casey Fatch, Shasta Regional”s CEO, believes news reports of the global pandemic scared people away.

The trend also stood out for Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association.

“People have been staying away from the hospitals out of fear of the COVID virus, especially as we were experiencing this at the beginning of this wave,” Coyle said.

“The challenge has been that people have been avoiding care that they actually need,” she said.

The telemedicine transformation

As hospital activity began picking up in May after Newsom allowed the return of elective surgery procedures, hospitals and clinics were seeing health care take a new course: Telemedicine.

More people are skipping a visit to doctor’s offices – many had closed anyway as a coronavirus precaution – and making telehealth appointments with general practitioners using their smartphone, laptop or tablet.

“We’re under a transformation,” said Doreen Bradshaw, executive director of the Health Alliance of Northern California that represents community clinics and health centers. “(Telemedicine) has a lot of possibilities. It has tremendous potential for rural health centers.”

Dignity Health, parent of Mercy Medical Center, started offering virtual urgent care visits for free to anyone who thought they had the virus, if they had a low-grade fever, cough or shortness of breath. The coupon code was easy to remember: COVID19.

The Dignity Health Medical Group could expand telemedicine in the future if it gains more acceptance, according to Dr. Jill Fitzpatrick of Grass Valley, a medical director at Dignity Health who practices family medicine.

“One thing we don’t know is how insurance companies will respond going forward and if they will continue to cover this service, she said.

Fairchild’s Andrus thinks for telemedicine to be successful going forward, payers need to provide funding and patients need to be satisfied.

“All of the stakeholders have to align,” Andrus said. “Maybe that’s why we haven’t effectively moved the needle pre-COVID.”

“This COVID pandemic is a tipping point for the outpatient delivery system model that in my mind will be forever changed,” Andrus said. “At least in part you’re going to see patients that are now willing to accept a virtual visit.”

Andrus said Fairchild’s brick-and-mortar clinics saw 60,000 visits last year with about half for primary care. Andrus thinks a good percentage of those seeking primary care going forward will be done through telehealth.

Already, Andrus said the demand his telehealth services are up 10-fold.

“Across Northern California, across the state, across the country, you’re going to see a much greater utilization of telehealth than ever before,” Andrus said.

Another benefit of telemedicine is that eliminates the need to travel long distances such as Sacramento and San Francisco for specialty care.

A ‘new’ normal for hospitals

The hospital association”s Coyle makes a case for hospitals receiving financial aid from the state, saying at a recent press conference the health-care facilities are the key to restarting California’s economy.

“A county is not allowed to reopen, the state cannot reopen its economic activity unless hospitals are open, available and staffed, Coyle said.

Editor’s note: Record Searchlight reporter Michele Chandler and Skye Kinkade contributed to this report.

Mike Chapman is a visual journalist for the Record Searchlight in Redding. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Wash.

Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News.