When Hurricane Harvey caused flooding throughout Houston, it displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens. It is estimated that more than 27,000 homes were destroyed by the savage water, resulting in an extreme number of now-homeless people who lost access to vital prescriptions and medical treatments they need to stay healthy. The field of telemedicine provided displaced patients with the immediate care that they couldn’t get from their local physicians, in addition to medication and treatments for chronic conditions.
Displaced Houston residents with chronic or flood-related conditions can receive the medical care through technology-driven, virtual office visits provided at local disaster shelters through the cooperation of local hospitals such as Children’s Health. It is estimated that for every adult patient there are three children who need medical attention, and a shortage of pediatricians available for 24-hour care means some of these patients could not be treated without telemedicine services.
The use of telemedicine in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is made possible by the passage of SB 1107, a law passed in May that allowed Texas residents to see a doctor remotely without an initial visit in person. Texas is the last state in the country to implement this new law, and state physicians were still getting used to a higher influx of new patients even before Harvey struck.
They expect to see patients from Harvey who have been exposed to mold and bacterial infection from clean-up in addition to diagnosing new cases of anxiety or depression as families face an uncertain future. The use of telemedicine in post-disaster situations is relatively new. When Hurricane Katrina blasted through New Orleans in 2015, emergency personnel were often stretched to the limit with the constant traveling between office, hospital and shelters.
Telemedicine allows physicians to “see” dozens of patients a day using just a computer monitor and simple machines to measure vital signs. It is hoped that telemedicine can become the new normal for those who need medical treatment after going through a natural disaster.