Telehealth Booth Increases Access to Health Care in North Carolina During the COVID-19 Pandemic
To decrease the risk of COVID-19 exposure between doctors and their patients, telehealth services have become an increasingly popular way to receive care. While telehealth is a convenient option for many, patients without reliable internet access cannot always utilize telehealth services. Limited access to telehealth resources at home may cause some people to delay medical care or preventative visits, causing them to avoid seeking critical care when they need it. This is the case in Robeson County, North Carolina, where according to 2020 Census data, 59.1% of households do not have broadband access.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) Health Southeastern’s Community Health Services has begun to operate a telehealth booth for public use in Lumberton as a step towards overcoming inequitable access to health care resources. The booth, placed in UNC Health Southeastern’s Community Health Education Center, was purchased using Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) cooperative agreement funds. This booth will give communities with inadequate broadband connections the chance to schedule one-on-one Zoom appointments with a provider of their choosing. It is self-guided and equipped with temperature sensors and blood pressure monitors. Additionally, each booth location will have trained, on-site individuals present to assist with any operational issues that patients may encounter. Patients schedule their telehealth appointments through UNC Health Southeastern’s Contact Center.
There are currently five telehealth booths that have been placed in high-traffic areas throughout Robeson County, with additional installations planned for 2021. Program leaders worked with community partners to identify the community's barriers to health care service access and determine locations that would be most accessible to county residents. To ensure broad accessibility, booths are placed at the Robeson County Housing Authority, Maxton Medicine Shoppe, and Robeson County Sheriff’s Department.
The installation of the telehealth booths provides residents across Robeson County with the opportunity to experience the benefits of telehealth despite significant disparities in individual broadband access. As the program moves into the next phase of implementation, the focus has shifted to community engagement and marketing to specific populations that are expected to benefit the most from the booths. Although these efforts have just begun, there has already been a notable increase in MyChart signups for the booths. By standing up these telehealth booths, Robeson County is transforming patient care in an equitable and accessible way for the community.