Dr. Sharma gets home exhausted, she sets her bag down on the dining room table, letting out a deep breath. It’s already past 8pm and she hasn’t even eaten dinner yet. She normally eats dinner alone, thinking about the patients she saw that day. She may even remember to call the hospital check in on some who were taken to the ER due to COVID.
For the past 8 months we have been hearing great stories of heroism and sacrifice from our healthcare professionals across the country as they fight this pandemic. Stories from large cities like New York and Seattle can be distracting to those of us in smaller towns. We can forget how COVID may be affecting our own healthcare providers locally. Although Central Oregon has not taken a major hit from COVID, our doctors, nurses, and behavioral health consultants across local clinics are feeling the effects of the virus and the precautionary measures that have been implemented along with it.
In March of this year, when the novel coronavirus reached Oregon primary care providers in local clinics started seeing their patients remotely. They held appointments both over the phone and via video chat. While talking to these providers it is clear that this form of forced telemedicine is not ideal for giving proper care and takes its toll on morale.
“My main frustration with virtual visits is the inability to examine a patient.” Says Dr. Martin Smart from Lapine Community Health Center. “There are also a lot of issues with patients’ access to technology, making the visits difficult and resorting to phone visits instead of a video visit, which is also less than ideal because then I don’t get to visually see how the patient is doing.”
Doctor Divya Sharma, who also works at Lapine Community Health, is an internal medicine physician. This means she sees mostly middle-aged and older adults with more complex illnesses. Because of this, remote care has had major limitations for her. “When I see my patients virtually I am unable to get accurate vitals, report of weight, or blood pressure numbers. These need to be closely monitored in most of my cases. They are important indicators of overall health for these patients.”
But telemedicine is just one of the daily struggles that healthcare professionals have been dealing with during COVID.
“Staffing has been another challenge.” Says Kate Fosburg, nursing supervisor at Mosaic Medical in Bend. “Any co-workers who were exposed to COVID or have symptoms affect our team and our patients.”
Chanda Driscoll is a behavioral health consultant with a few Bend clinics. Her shoulders slump and her bright energetic persona flickers a bit as she says, “I have very very limited interaction with fellow employees, because all I do is sit at my computer screen and interact with my patients remotely. I now despise being on my phone or computer at the end of a work day.”
Dr. Smart and Sharma work 12 hour days when seeing patients. They both make the long 40 minute drive to and from Lapine from their homes in Bend.
Dr. Smart’s young kids greet him at the door when he arrives home from work. And though this is sweet, it doesn’t ease his anxiety. “I am more worried that I am exposed to COVID at work and will bring it home to my family. I can’t help but worry now when I hug my children or wife.” He says.
COVID is clearly exhausting and filled with new challenges. Everyday these healthcare workers show their passion to help others through how they have taken this pandemic head on.
“There was even a time where I didn’t feel like I was doing enough.” Say Dr. Sharma. “I wanted to fly out to New York or California and help in the hospitals there. I was truly depressed that I couldn’t be doing more. Until I realized that my patients and my community needed me here to do my part in helping to prevent COVID becoming worse in Central Oregon.”
“I think the experience with COVID has given us the opportunity to expand how we view the concept of a medical visit.” Says Dr. Smart. “By utilizing virtual technology we can have more access to patients who may not be able to travel, or are uncomfortable with a traditional visit. I hope to see this trend continue as we resume more normal social interactions.”