Stony Brook Medicine shifts telehealth into high gear

Not the FIRST Noel, but definitely an early adapter: Stony Brook Medicine Telehealth Director Kimberly Noel rings in the new normal.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Telehealth is not exactly a new concept for Stony Brook Medicine, which had an interdisciplinary Telehealth Workgroup – a collaboration of executives, academicians, researchers, marketers and clinical experts – and several telehealth initiatives in the air long before COVID-19.

But that proved mere prelude to the Herculean telehealth efforts put forth since the pandemic struck.

The numbers tell the tale: Virtual telemedicine visits have increased from about 14 per week to about 1,300 per day across the Stony Brook Medicine system, which has pressed just about every specialty – from primary care and dermatology to behavioral health and emergency medicine – into virtual service.

Gerard Kelly: Interim CIO, vital cog.

But the heart of the story, of course, is the people making it happen – starting with Associate Director of Operations Kristie Golden, Interim Chief Information Officer Gerald Kelly and Telehealth Project Manager Joan Crawford, who teamed up with Microsoft specialists to build a system-wide virtual health network on the Microsoft Teams platform, using carefully curated telehealth add-ons specific to the needs and talents of the Stony Brook community.

With resident physicians lending a programming hand, it took Stony Brook Medicine just 10 short days to prepare more than 20 specialty-care departments to virtually “meet the outpatient healthcare needs of patients who could no longer safely visit their doctor’s office due to social distancing and stay-at-home mandates,” according to the system.

But with that 10-day sprint, Stony Brook’s innovators were just getting started. Job No. 1 was safety – being able to treat less-sick coronavirus patients, for instance, without risking everyone else. So, as the pandemic escalated, Stony Brook University Hospital piloted a virtual-care program combining Microsoft Teams functions and smartphones that allows Emergency Department specialists to remotely “examine” COVID-19 patients (and possible carriers).

Edward Sun: Decent exposure.

Meanwhile, another team – led by Crawford, Assistant Chief Medical Officer Edward Sun and Behavioral Health Operations Assistant Director Susan Wilner – established a similar but separate Microsoft Teams protocol, this combining smartphones and specially configured iPads, that allows SBUH physicians to safely consult with other patients without increasing contamination risks.

“The iPads help minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19 by healthcare workers needing to enter the room, which in turn minimizes the number of personal protective equipment changes at a time when PPE supplies are limited everywhere,” Sun noted.

Other non-pandemic-specific Stony Brook programs and modules have also been reconfigured for the Age of Coronavirus. The medical system’s Disaster Mental Health Team has modified a Microsoft Teams platform to deliver wellness strategies and other mental-health resources for employees. The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health – “one of the first departments to embrace telehealth,” according to Stony Brook Medicine – has created a dial-in helpline exclusively for overwrought staffers, featuring one-on-one counseling and other telehealth resources.

Kristie Golden: New gear.

More on Stony Brook Medicine’s complex telehealth services available here.

Speaking on a recent episode of Stony Brook University’s “Beyond the Expected” podcast, Golden – who oversees operation of the system’s psychiatry and neurology units and also spearheads Stony Brook Medicine’s new telehealth initatives – noted that remote services first found their footing in mental-health fields, but are now proving essential across the board.

“There are more and more opportunities to [see patients remotely], especially with advances in technology, our ability to generate data and to use it to help patients [over a distance],” the associate operations director added. “When we began to see this as becoming more of a necessity because of the spread of the virus, we really put it into high gear.”