Upon first impact of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the primary healthcare priority was the physical health of those affected by the disasters. However, in the wake of the hurricanes, the mental well-being of the residents also became a chief concern for healthcare providers. Not only have telemedicine services be used to connect storm-affected persons to traditional healthcare providers, they are also being used as a vital method for catering to behavioral health needs.
“Once the immediate physical danger has passed, then people start to experience the traumatic feelings of realizing that perhaps they’ve lost their home or maybe they’re in great financial distress,” Dr. Sylvia Romm, medical director at American Well, pointed out. “That’s where the therapist can come in and help them move forward with their lives.”
In the aftermath of the hurricanes, behavioral health is one of the free services being provided by American Well and others.
Telemedicine is an appropriate and effective method for the provision of aid to those affected by natural disasters, as many of the victims are displaced from their homes in an emergency situation. “You have such large numbers of people who’ve been displaced,” Romm explained. “Even if they had a therapy relationship, chances are they wouldn’t be able to access them any longer.”
Larry Gleit, executive vice president of specialty care at MDLive, explains that this is so because, in addition to patients, healthcare providers have also been displaced by the disaster. “Part of why telemedicine becomes so important is that all of the providers live in the community have just experienced the same natural disasters.”
In addition, Gleit pointed out that a scarcity of behavioral health providers is already being felt. “In general, there’s a dependency and need to use virtual care,” he stated. “The need becomes compounded in situations like this.” During the weeks following the hurricanes Harvey and Irma, MDLive provided people in affected areas telemedicine visits free of cost.
Drones were also employed by the American Red Cross, for the very first time, to gain an idea about the extent of damage in parts of Texas, and to obtain an accurate assessment about which areas were most in need of assistance.