Disasters bring people together and uniquely demonstrate their caring for one another without regard for race, religion, nationality, or immigration status. People are people helping people, working face-to-face and hand-to-hand.

Hurricane Harvey 08.26.2017Telehealth providers, Teladoc, American Well, MD Live, Doctor on Demand, and Livehealth Online are all providing free telehealth to the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. The wrath of Harvey is so vast and deep that the receding flood waters are just beginning to reveal the destruction. Access to care is affected by road closures, flooding, and doctors’ offices that are closed. Twenty-three hospitals were forced to evacuate patients and are now in the process of restoring and repairing their facilities.

The Red Cross is always there with the first responders setting up necessities for people and families that had to evacuate and may not have anything left. They are so well organized that volunteers from other states are called in to help. I saw this in Hawaii where the volunteers dropped whatever they were doing and headed for the disaster zone.

But this time, telehealth companies are offering their services to help with non-urgent care 24/7. Thousands of residents are cut off from their regular doctors but still require care. That helps reduce the on-site load of hospitals and clinics in the immediate area. It also reduces the stress for victims who can be diagnosed and self-treated. Care can be given to those for whom travel is difficult or need to stay close to home.

It’s not over yet. Healthcare experts also predict a surge in mental health issues, ranging from depression to PTSD, as is often the case in the aftermath of a natural disaster. This, too, could be aided by telehealth, giving people access to a doctor or counselor from their homes.
The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB) reported on lessons from Hurricane Ike, which nearly destroyed Galveston in 2009. UTMB suffered significant disruptions to a majority of its physical and operational infrastructures, yet its telemedicine services were able to resume near normal activities within the first week of the post-Ike recovery period. This was due to the flexibility of its data network, the rapid response, and plasticity of its telemedicine program.
Natural disasters are not uncommon and can disrupt the ability to care for victims in the very locale of need. Isn’t telehealth one critical tool that should be in every community’s toolbox?