The Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California is using a new telehealth platform to improve access and care for thousands of residents in and around Oakland – many of whom have no other access to care.
– A community health clinic in Oakland that offers free healthcare to underserved populations is discovering just how important telehealth can be when payment and reimbursement are taken off the table.
The Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California, launched in 2008, saw some 4,500 uninsured and underinsured patients last year – and that number is growing, due to the coronavirus pandemic and a resulting surge in unemployment. With the crisis reducing in-person care to emergencies, the clinic has ramped up a telemedicine platform recently put in place with assistance from Kareo.
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“We’ve become a lifeline for people whose only access to care is through us,” says Dr. Michael Matly, the clinic’s managing director. “We’re providing care that they wouldn’t get.”
The clinic, part of a global order that has been providing free healthcare for about 900 years, offers free care, including testing, preventive healthcare and access to dozens of specialists, to a population of roughly 300,000 in the Bay Area. It’s funded solely through an annual fundraising event and donations.
Up until COVID-19, that care had been delivered strictly through the downtown site or a mobile clinic introduced in 2018. Now, much of that care comes through the telephone.
“It’s been a huge relief for them,” says Dr. Thomas Wallace, who volunteers four days a week at the clinic and, at 89 years, is its senior staffer. “With the clinic being closed, we need this opportunity to stay in touch with them and see how they’re doing.”
Working through an electronic health record platform and laptops, the clinic’s roughly 50 volunteers can coordinate care for patients on a connected health platform, ordering tests, prescribing medications and updating medical records. The platform is currently audio-based, but the clinic is working to launch a video visit service soon.
“I think video is going to allow us to see more patients,” says Matly. “Phones are good for many of our patients, but to be able to actually see them will give us new opportunities.”
“The key is giving them access to care,” he adds. “This is a population that has always been vulnerable,” many of which have little or no insurance, are multilingual, perhaps homeless, have emigrated here from other countries, and are unsure or untrusting of the health system.
“In the COVID-19 age, people don’t want to go to the hospital,” Matly says. “This population is even more vulnerable now.”
“Before the transition to telemedicine, it was disturbing not being able to communicate with our patients,” Wallace noted in a recent press release announcing the Kareo partnership. “During a time of social distancing and following the shelter-in-place mandate, this is a window of hope to a community that is desperately in need of regular medical attention.”
Matly says the clinic staff are “learning new skillsets” through telehealth, and the clinic itself is forging partnerships with the likes of Twitter and the Mayo Clinic to expand its reach and offer new resources, even some eConsults. They envision someday using mHealth devices and platforms to capture more data, perhaps even expand care management into the home.
Once the crisis has passed, Matly and Wallace don’t expect patients to come flocking back to the clinic or mobile unit. But with a telehealth program in place, the clinic can reach out to those patients, as well as making inroads to new patients and new communities. Care delivered through a phone, online or via video is infinitely better than no care at all.
“We’re excited to see where this leads,” says Wallace.