Article

A Silver Lining of the COVID-19 Crisis: Rapid Expansion of Telehealth Services Made Possible by Donors

June 17, 2021

Despite so many hardships caused by the pandemic, there is one silver lining that donors helped make possible: expanded telehealth services that are easing travel and time burdens for patient families, while ensuring they can continue to get essential medical care.

Imagine these scenarios:

  • The parents of a young girl with epilepsy both want to be at an important appointment with her neurologist, but the girl’s mother has to work at the same time, and her office is three hours away from Children’s Hospital Colorado.
  • A teenage boy has waited several weeks to travel four hours to Children’s Colorado for a visit to see a highly renowned specialist for his rare disease, but the expert caregiver, who is exhibiting no signs of illness, is quarantined at home for two weeks after being exposed to someone with COVID-19.
  • A diabetic child had a key follow-up appointment at Children’s Colorado for her condition that has been scheduled for months, but an early winter storm shuts down numerous highways in the state, making it impossible for her parents to travel to the clinic.

In the past, these situations almost certainly would have resulted in a parent, child or caregiver missing a critical appointment or a visit being cancelled. Now, thanks to telemedicine advancements – many of them rolled out in response to the coronavirus crisis—more kids can receive consistent care, even when unforeseen circumstances arise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed innumerable aspects of how Children’s Colorado operates, including how we deliver care for kids and their families. Despite so many hardships caused by the novel coronavirus, there is one silver lining that donors have helped make possible: telehealth services that have expanded rapidly and dramatically, including a more than 2,000% increase in virtual visits in a year’s time, easing the burdens of travel and missed school, work and activities for patients and families.

Keira, Children's Hospital Colorado patient
Children’s Colorado patients like Keira can see their doctors via virtual visits and receive world-class multidisciplinary care from the comfort of their own homes.

For kids in rural communities, for families whose homes are great distances away from pediatric specialists, and for children with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, epilepsy and asthma, the rapid expansion of telehealth services resulting from the pandemic has been lifechanging.

Prior to COVID-19, most Children’s Colorado telehealth appointments were conducted at a nearby or regional health care clinic, such as a pediatrician’s office. While that’s still often the case, many of these virtual visits can now take place in family’s homes. Caregivers see this development in a positive light, because it allows providers to see their patients interacting in an environment where they are most comfortable, giving their care team a better glimpse into kids’ daily lives.

COVID-19 accelerates need for telehealth

COVID-19 quickly accelerated the demand for telehealth appointments across the country and around the world. At Children’s Colorado, caregivers provided 5,200 virtual visits in 2019 – and a whopping 128,000 in 2020, a more than 2,300% increase. The pandemic crisis also led to the rapid escalation of telehealth use at Children’s Colorado across myriad areas, from outpatient and inpatient care to emergency services to a full range of mental health services for anxiety, depression and other conditions. Telehealth is now offered by almost all providers in almost every clinic across the Children’s Colorado system of care if a virtual visit is clinically appropriate for the child. In some cases, appointments are even offered in other states thanks to telehealth.

Such a rapid implementation of telehealth capabilities was not without its challenges and costs. Patient families sometimes needed assistance accessing technology and stable computer networks. Many upfront and ongoing expenses are associated with running the telehealth program, including the price of technology and server maintenance. And in spring of 2020, the hospital’s IT and clinical teams collaborated to complete three years’ worth of progress in about three weeks to ensure Children’s Colorado patients were receiving the continuous care they needed. Thanks to donor support, these seismic shifts happened relatively seamlessly.

What’s more, the groundwork that has been laid in the last year is a major step forward in redesigning the future of pediatric health care altogether.  As our patients safely return to Children’s Colorado for in-person appointments, the progress made in telehealth will continue to have a positive impact for years to come – especially for families who live far away from our care locations.  

Critical community support for virtual healthcare appointments

Children’s Colorado has been a longtime leader in the deployment of telehealth technologies, a vision made possible by generous donors whose support has helped us to rapidly scale our program. For years, philanthropic investment has played a significant role in establishing, maintaining and ramping up telehealth programs at Children’s Colorado.

For example, an anonymous Colorado foundation has given more than $1 million in support of telehealth hubs in Durango and Montrose, Colo., and now helps support school-based clinics in several towns across southern Colorado. Their contribution toward establishing our telehealth infrastructure was vital in our quick pivot to offer telehealth across our care continuum.

And thanks to the visionary support of more than $5 million through 2020 from the Daniels Fund, the Bill Daniels Center for Children’s Hearing (BDCCH) at Children’s Colorado has actively been using telehealth for nearly a decade to serve patients who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. These services became even more critical during the pandemic, when mask-wearing made it much harder for this population of patients – who often rely on lip-reading and hearing aids – to communicate effectively with their providers. New closed captioning services and American Sign Language interpreters who join teleconferencing calls with these patients are providing invaluable resources to these kids and families. The Scottish Rite Foundation has also given more than $5 million to support Children’s Colorado’s capacity for providing speech, language and learning therapy services through telehealth.

“What we’ve discovered is that with telehealth, almost anything is possible if a virtual visit makes clinical sense,” says Dr. Christina Olson, the Telehealth Program’s medical director. “Things that used to be a dealbreaker for receiving care, such as a snowstorm or a six-hour drive, are no longer barriers to accessing our pediatric experts. People who had to miss an entire day of work – and their child a whole day of school – now can have a 30-minute appointment online in their homes or at a local clinic with minimal interruption to their daily lives. Telehealth is truly revolutionizing the way we can provide care to our patients.”

Support lifesaving care for kids

Because telehealth isn’t limited by geography, the opportunities for helping children and families are virtually boundless. You can help support telehealth and our other critical programs at Children’s Colorado as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

Charting Pediatrics podcast

Listen to our pediatric experts discuss implementation of telemedicine during the coronavirus pandemic