With our country slowly heading back to our “new normal,” we will likely have to go back to our regularly scheduled lives, which includes being diligent about keeping up with all our routine doctor visits. It is even more important when living with diabetes to have annual eye appointments, physicals, dental appointments, and of course, our endo and diabetes educator appointments.
Since many are apprehensive about this new set up and wondering how exactly it will work, I thought it would be great to talk to Dawn, a nurse practitioner and certified diabetes educator who works in an endocrinologist office and have her walk us through the process and what we can expect.
Thank you, Dawn, for taking the time to talk to me today! How long have you been living with type 1 diabetes?
24 years at the end of this month.
Did living with diabetes play into your decision to become a CDE?
I had a great CDE in 1995 in a rural town which was unheard of. Then in college, I had a great nurse practitioner (NP) that I still look up to as a mentor for my practice. She talked to me like a person. She talked to me without pressure, shame, guilt, accusations and disappointment. She helped me come to terms with my diabetes and I will forever be in debt to her. I want to pass on that experience to other people living with diabetes.
How has your endocrinologist office responded to COVID-19? Have you closed down? How did you prepare for seeing your patients virtually?
We stopped seeing patients in the office at the end of March. We do still need labs so our lab is open but that significantly reduces foot traffic. We are only ordering labs that are necessary and will dictate current decisions. If they are not needed right now, then they can wait. We have two practice locations and staff are staying at one location. This way, if one office is quarantined we still have the other office to ensure patients have medical support.
We transitioned to virtual visits using the telehealth visit option within our EMR (electronic medical record) and we are using doxy.me as well. We are calling patients ahead of time to let them know about the change in the appointment and encouraging them to try to log in and make sure it works prior to their appointment. This would give you the chance to troubleshoot technical issues prior to your appointment. We have had a few patients who still needed to be seen in person but almost all of our visits can be completed via telehealth.
I know many patients are curious about how an appointment like this will work. Is there anything the patient needs to do prior to the appointment? I know my son has an upcoming telehealth appointment and we had to download a certain app.
I would recommend as listed above making sure your means of communication works. Do a trial run at the location you plan to be at. If you will be at work during the call, make sure it works at work. If you are at home, then make sure it works at home. Will you use a computer or a smartphone? Do you know how to troubleshoot the speakers, video and microphone? Do you have a pump, continuous glucose monitor, or meter to download ahead of time? If you do, then get these downloaded at home prior to your appointment. Do a practice run a week ahead of time so if you need to call for help you have time to do so.
Having blood sugar readings and pump downloads ahead of time has streamlined my practice. I can view them prior to the appointment and focus on key items to make the appointment more productive. We are encouraging all patients to download at home, but we have made the exception for a few (elderly) to come and download at the office.
Can you walk us through what to expect during the appointment?
My wonderful medical assistants (Ariel, Tonya, and Whitney) have been calling patients to go over medications, any new changes to medical history just before the appointment and checking to make sure the telehealth app or doxy.me is working. Hopefully, I have already reviewed blood glucose logs and pump downloads ahead of time. If not, I will encourage the patient to get that for me.
What are some of the drawbacks of a telehealth appointment? I know my endocrinologist usually examines my thyroid, heart, etc. How will the doctor be able to check vitals as well as other routine measures?
Yes, not being able to physically assess a patient sometimes is tough. However, if I am concerned enough that we need an in-person assessment ASAP, then they likely should have an urgent appointment with their primary care provider. If someone is complaining of an enlarged thyroid, with a keen eye, we can visualize that in most people via video. However, nothing replaces a hands-on assessment. We will see a patient in the office urgently if needed.
Do you find that overall providers have more or less time to spend with their patients this way?
When we have data (CGM/BG/Pump/labs) there is more time for providers to spend having meaningful conversations with patients. This streamlines appointments.
As a medical professional, how are you finding the telehealth appointments? What do you find most challenging?
- When I have the data prior to an appointment, I love telehealth. I also love that I can go over reports with the patient and educate them on what I am seeing.
- The most challenging part is obtaining data prior to the appointment. My medical assistant makes 2-3 calls prior to an appointment trying to prepare each patient. If I don’t have data, then essentially we are making an educated guess about what medications need to change.
- For example, a patient can complain of afternoon hypoglycemia. However, it could be a reduction in basal insulin needs, overcorrection of pre-lunch blood glucose, or a too aggressive carb ratio. If we do not have data (CGM/BG/Pump) information, there is no way to tell for sure. So we ask questions around and around to try to figure out the most likely scenario but if we are wrong, you may have less hypoglycemia but BG will run higher. I know I do not want my provider to essentially guess at what needs to change.
- Another example is a high A1c and the provider increasing the long-lasting insulin (basal) or basal rates unnecessarily causing low blood sugar in the middle of the night. I see this often when providers are grasping at straws trying to improve blood sugar control. When the real reason may be significant after-meal blood sugar spikes.
For someone who is unfamiliar with Zoom and other related apps, it may present a novel challenge. Have you found patients are having trouble with the new set up? Do you provide explicit directions on how to get set up for the appointment?
Most patients who have reliable internet access and have a smartphone or computer with a camera the platforms we use work beautifully. Doxy.me just requires the patient to click on the link we provide in an email. Click and then wait for me to start the appointment.
What do you think the patients will find the most pleasant about the virtual appointment? And what about the worst aspect?
The best part is that you can sign on from anywhere with cellular service or Wi-Fi. So your time away from work or other commitments is minimal. The worst part is that you are still at work or home and there are often other distractions. For example, if children or a dog are disrupting the appointment, this can be distracting and cause the appointment to take longer. It is also not a good idea to have an appointment while driving.
What can you tell us about privacy compliance? How can patients be sure their information is safe?
When using the Healow app or Doxy.me, the voice and video access is encrypted, keeping the visit private. The actual video does not access the patient chart in any way.
Looking forward, what do you think our medical system will look like after COVID-19? What about in 10 years?
I have no idea. I have learned to never assume anything in medicine because just when we think something will happen, the opposite occurs. I am hoping this opens doors allowing more rural telemedicine. This will provide medical care, especially those with chronic diseases, living in rural areas that travel 1, 2, or sometimes 3 hours for appointments. Historically, telehealth is not covered by insurance and the cost falls onto the patient. This hopefully will allow for proper insurance billing of these appointments to be more cost-effective and convenient.
Thank you so much, Dawn, for taking the time to walk us through what a telehealth appointment will look like. I have had two so far and they both went successfully! Best of luck and thank you for what you do!
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