While every day the COVID-19 pandemic brings new challenges, one area of continued concern is the health of elderly patients and their contact with medical providers. As a result of greatly reduced in-clinic appointments, many providers have switched to telehealth services. These require the use of devices, which many elderly patients may not have, especially those in low-income communities.
To address this issue, the nonprofit group TeleHealth Access for Seniors began in March with the goal of collecting devices and cash donations to provide elderly patients and veterans with continued access to healthcare services and to sustain the patient-doctor relationship during this pandemic.
Oakland native Tiffany Wong, who will be a Yale University senior this fall, started the organization with Aakshi Agarwal and Hannah Verma, two Yale classmates, and Verma’s brother, Arjun Verma. They realized elderly patients, veterans and members of low-income communities had been put at increased risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and with more free time since the campus closed down for the semester, they decided to help.
Born and raised in Oakland, Wong serves on TeleHealth Access for Seniors’ leadership team, collecting devices and donations through a GoFundMe account and working to help elderly patients and veterans in the Bay Area. She volunteers in Oakland and Alameda and has collected donations from friends and family but now is trying to spread the word to collect more. Telehealth, also known as telemedicine, uses technology and online electronic services to provide long-distance health care support and continue that patient-doctor communication while the patient stays at home, which, among various other benefits, reduces the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
“Many providers use apps such as FaceTime, Zoom and a well known one called MyChart that allows patients to see test results, message their health care providers, make an appointment online, get advice and talk to a doctor,” said Wong.
The problem is many patients may not have a camera device or know how to use telehealth apps. This is where TeleHealth Access for Seniors comes in with its mission to connect these older Americans with donated devices collected from families, friends, local businesses, schools and more.
The devices need to have a camera and must be able to connect online and support telemedicine apps. Wong asks for devices that people already have and are not using, mostly older-generation devices. She erases all data on donated devices, sanitize them as much as possible and download the apps needed for telehealth services. If no charger is provided, she works with her team to order one.
“We also work on writing and distributing guides that teach older Americans how to use FaceTime and order groceries and medications; we provide free tech support over the phone as well,” Wong said. “So we provide a package that includes the device, chargers and step-by-step guides for downloading and using the apps.”
Once the device packages are ready, Wong ships them to the clinics, which then distribute them to patients who need them. Since its onset, the organization has donated 425 devices, partnered with 48 clinics and has more than 80 volunteers who are college undergraduate and high school students. Cash donations are used to buy refurbished devices found online, charging cubes and cords and to pay for shipping costs. The research that Wong and the organization’s other founders conducted before embarking on this endeavor produced stark findings.
“The research we did showed that more than 50% of older Americans have three or more chronic conditions, and this necessitates them needing to go to clinics frequently to speak with their doctors,” she said. “But visits to clinics have been limited, so these devices can be helpful so they can see their doctor face-to-face.”
While TeleHealth Access for Seniors is a national nonprofit, Wong serves on the team as the volunteer supporting low-income communities in Oakland and Alameda. She’s beginning the process of partnering with local organizations, has reached out to several clinics that have expressed positive responses to the program and is working on getting more donations. Unfortunately, because she is the only volunteer in the organization working to support the Oakland/Alameda community, it has been difficult to collect enough donations, and for this reason she is reaching out to more potential donors.
“Having been born and raised in Oakland and having gone to school in Alameda, I ensure that my efforts as part of the TeleHealth Access for Seniors team go toward helping my local community. My mother works at two senior homes, one in Oakland and one in Alameda, and my sister works at a clinic in Oakland,” Wong said. “Hearing from their experiences at work and knowing that device donations can better connect these patients to their doctors, health care services and family amid the COVID-19 pandemic — which has greatly limited the number of face-to-face interactions — is why I serve on the TeleHealth Access for Seniors team.”
Wong strongly believes that everyone, regardless of his or her economic situation, deserves access to healthcare.
“Coming from Oakland and Alameda there are a lot of people here who struggle with affording health care, so I’m asking that fellow community members donate their unwanted devices no one is using to this organization and to our GoFundMe account,” she said. “Any amount would help. People can go to our website, but if they want the device to specifically go to the Oakland/Alameda community, please contact me for collection or shipping.”
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Author: Marta Yamamoto