Telehealth and telepsychiatry specifically have expanded rapidly in recent months to meet the demands for psychiatric care during the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. As both patients and providers become more familiar and comfortable with the virtual care space, another aspect of the patient experience is up for debate: How do we safely collect data on patients’ vital signs while the CDC continues to advise social distancing and other safety precautions?
The following five points illustrate opportunities providers and organizations have to adjust their operations for safety, effectiveness, and efficiency while collecting vitals data during and after the pandemic emergency.
1. Have patients acquire their own equipment
Patients may opt to acquire their own home-based remote patient monitoring equipment, such as scales and blood pressure cuffs, for personal use for themselves and possibly other family members living in their home. Like a family home thermometer, remote patient monitoring equipment in the home is likely to become more common and more affordable over time.
For patients without access to home equipment, local drugstores often provide equipment and services to obtain routine vitals like blood pressure. Access to this equipment may also be available through community spaces such as schools, workplaces, and local community and public health centers.
Another option is wearable devices used for remote patient monitoring, which involve minimal restrictions or impact on the patient’s daily lifestyle. From wristbands and armbands to chest straps, patches, and clothing-based monitors, these devices offer the potential for more regular and consistent readings of certain vitals throughout the day and night, as long as the patient is wearing the device.
2. Purchase and send equipment to patients
Some clinics have found grants to support the purchase and mailing of remote patient monitoring equipment for patients to use at home. This option increases accessibility and affordability of the equipment for patients, particularly those who have also been financially impacted by the ongoing pandemic.
However, it’s important to remember with this option that a provider, clinic, or hospital could open themselves up to potential problems or even litigation if something is wrong with any equipment they choose to promote.
To avoid this particular hurdle, instead of using grant money to fund a particular product, that funding could be used instead to reimburse patients partially or in full for their own purchases of relevant home health equipment.
3. Extend times between patients for in-office vitals
In locations where clinic offices are open and staffed, patients may still be able to have their vitals taken in the office as usual. What will be necessary is more frequent and thorough cleanings of these shared spaces and equipment to ensure the highest level of safety for patients and staff.
These additional cleaning tasks take time, so scheduling an extra few minutes between patients allows your staff the time they need to clean equipment and surfaces before the next patient arrives. This may also involve changes to your physical office layout and workflow in terms of patient waiting areas and appointment rooms.
4. Utilize information from other providers
Coordinating patient care with other providers can also help alleviate the strain and risk of collecting patient data during periods of higher risk of infection. If patients happen to be seeing another provider in a clinic, such as a primary care physician or other outpatient clinic, the patient or your staff can request recent vitals information from these other providers.
If patients have paperwork or notes from a recent visit with their vitals data, your clinic can utilize that data. Be aware and make note, however, if the data is self-reported or from memory, as such numbers could be inaccurate.
5. Adjust requirements and expectations for vital signs
In the past, it has been reasonable to expect vital signs at every visit on every patient. As hospitals, clinics, and healthcare providers and their staff continue to adjust their workflows to pandemic conditions, those expectations have had to shift.
Providers instead can reduce risk for patients and staff by carefully considering which patients it is medically necessary to obtain vitals from and how often rather than requiring this information from every patient on every visit. Such considerations would include general patient and staff safety as well as individual patient risks for exposure to the virus.
The key question for providers here is, are we doing more harm by attempting to collect this data amid the risk of the pandemic, especially if such data is not medically necessary? With that in mind, providers can then weigh the options above for those patients to assist in obtaining their vitals safely.
Empowering patients to be informed and involved in their vitals management is one of the best strategies we have as a healthcare community during this time of heightened disease, fear, and uncertainty. By encouraging patients to arm themselves with this knowledge, providers can push through the pandemic and into a new level of holistic and integrative care with a more educated and engaged patient community that routinely participates in their own remote monitoring and treatment.