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Care anywhere: The evolving state of telehealth care

Local experts in telehealth care (from left) Dr. Jennifer Wessels, Colleen Berding and Melissa Douglass addressed some of the latest developments within the growing field.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Local experts in telehealth care (from left) Dr. Jennifer Wessels, Colleen Berding and Melissa Douglass addressed some of the latest developments within the growing field.

Collectively speaking, we’re living more and more of our lives virtually, and that includes the ways in which we seek out medical care.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the ways that telehealth care is evolving and growing as an option among patients and providers.

Joining the conversation were Colleen Berding, telehealth program manager for the VA St. Louis Health Care System; Melissa Douglass, owner of Goal Driven Counseling and a recent University of Missouri-St. Louis social work alumna; and Dr. Jennifer Wessels, who is leading SSM Health’s newly launched telemedicine program with its primary care physicians.

Wessels gave an overview of several of the most common uses of telehealth.

“A lot of folks use that in a video-visit situation [that] is similar to a Skype or a Facetime with your doctor,” Wessels said. “Some people also use something called a store-and-forward technology. That’s where a patient or another medical professional would send photos or images or x-rays to a doctor distantly. That doctor would review that information and then send it back to the patient for a diagnosis and review.”

She added that telehealth has proven to be an effective tool, particularly in certain specialties like psychiatry and dermatology, and it’s becoming more important in primary care as well.

“We can see folks who have minor acute illnesses like colds or flus,” Wessels said, “and we can also see people with some more chronic issues, like medication follow-ups, diabetes, and smoking-cessation education and counseling.”

Berding noted that the VA has been using telehealth for quite some time.

“We started in the 1990s doing primarily video visits and store-and-forward visits in different locales,” she explained. “We were primarily tasked with bringing health care, and particularly specialty care, to remote locations and rural areas. And actually one of the areas here in the Midwest that was a pioneer for telehealth is the Poplar Bluff VA.”

She said it’s a “very customized” service among veterans and emphasized that an established relationship between patient and provider remains key.

“The technology is great, but it’s a tool,” Berding said. “And in the hands of a skilled and capable provider, this tool can make care go wherever that veteran is. And that to us is the most important thing, and with cell phones and smartphones and that, care really does go anywhere.”

Recent regulatory changes at the federal level are making it even easier to reach veterans via telehealth, she added, such as across state lines.

Douglass, who focuses on helping people going through transitions through her service, noted that distance counseling is not appropriate in every case, such as those dealing with psychosis, schizophrenia or other acute mental illnesses.

“It’s [more] helpful for people who are experiencing some of those common mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and traumas,” Douglass said.

On any given day she sees between six and eight patients via web application, she added, and she specializes in older teens.

While younger generations are often associated with the latest gadgets and gizmos, Douglass said that not everyone she crosses virtual paths with has access to the necessary internet connection and technology to make the most of distance counseling.

“When I started this, I definitely wanted to reduce barriers and normalize the conversation around mental health, and when I started to go out and talk about telemental health, the response was usually, ‘Tele-what?’” she said. “And so I’m very committed to doing a lot of education in the community.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.