ORANGE — During the pandemic, telemedicine has come to the rescue for patients and staff at local free clinics.
According to Dorren Brown, executive director of the Orange County Free Clinic in Orange, “Patients are asked to call the office first for screening and to secure an appointment via telephone. The clinic providers and nurse practitioners are meeting with patients via telephone and Skype when available.”
While lacking the warmth of an in-person visit, telemedicine prevents patients and health care providers from infecting each other with the highly contagious new coronavirus—or anything else, for that matter. But not everything can be handled during a phone or video conference.
Brown said the clinic’s registered nurse still sees patients for lab work, blood pressure checks and instruction sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays. The nurse practitioners are keeping scheduled appointments with patients in need of procedures and wound care, and patients continue to pick up medications and various other supplies and stop in to ask questions.
The clinic’s administrative staff is in the office, located at 101 C Woodmark St., during regular business hours, and the office is “as busy as ever,” Brown said.
“The office is open five days a week, with phone appointments Monday through Thursday and in-house appointments on Mondays and Wednesdays. Our providers are calling from home and our medication assistance caseworkers are working from home,” she said.
As of last Wednesday, the clinic had sent one patient elsewhere to be tested for COVID-19. However, Brown noted that other regular patients have gone to the emergency room seeking to be tested but were turned away because they didn’t meet the screening criteria required for the test.
The free clinic has a good working relationship with Dr. Dena Jennings, who Brown said has offered to screen free clinic patients for the virus. If they meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements based on the symptoms revealed during the screening, Jennings will then test them.
Whether free clinic patients qualify for the COVID-19 test or not, Brown and her staff are taking a preventative approach to protect others.
She said, “We have advised many patients who have any type of flu symptoms to self-quarantine/isolate for at least two weeks.”
In Locust Grove, Living Water Community Clinic has likewise changed its protocols. All patients must call first; no walk-ins are allowed.
Debbie McInnis, the clinic’s executive director, conducts the initial screening for everyone who calls in. As a result of the pandemic, providers have transitioned to phone or FaceTime appointments whenever possible. Regular patients may still come by to pick up their medications, but McInnis said they don’t see providers during those visits.
“Moving forward, we won’t have as many patients physically on site unless the provider feels that they need to come in,” McInnis said.
The nonprofit clinic, located at 32345 Constitution Highway, will celebrate its fourth anniversary in May. There are plans in the works for a dental clinic and a move to a nearby office suite, but the clinic’s immediate concern is continuing to help local people in need.
McInnis said the clinic provides a “safety net” for those who can’t get the medical help they need from a private practice. They may have just lost their jobs, or they may be on Medicaid but unable to get to a doctor’s office that accepts Medicaid payments.
“In this crazy time right now, we’re very pleased that we’ve been able to take care of our patients,” she added.
At the Piedmont Regional Dental Clinic, located at 13296 James Madison Highway between Orange and Gordonsville, Dr. Michael Shakroo and a reduced staff are fielding calls but not seeing patients. He said those in need of emergency care are referred to an oral surgeon who can treat them.
Shakroo is following the directions of the Virginia Department of Health, the American Dental Association and the Virginia Dental Association. In keeping with those directions, the clinic is closed at least through the end of April, he said.
He expressed his desire to continue assisting patients as much as possible through free phone consultations and apologized for not being able to see them in person. But he emphasized that it’s vitally important not to drain the supply of personal protective equipment, including medical masks and gloves, while conducting non-essential dental procedures. He said supplies must be reserved as much as possible for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.
Although currently closed to the public, the dental clinic still is making progress on its renovation and expansion. Construction of the clinic’s new pediatric wing is scheduled for completion in July, but given the public health crisis, Shakroo couldn’t say for sure when the clinic’s doors will open to the public.
Andre Hintermann, founder of the 10-year-old clinic, said, “We are eager to reopen as soon as possible. For the time being, we have no choice but to wait.”
Given that many people have been laid off, he expects to see an uptick in patients after the clinic is allowed to reopen.
Hintermann added, “We know we’ll have more work afterwards than we had before. We’re going to do whatever is needed” to meet the needs of patients.
While free clinics work hard to accommodate their patients, they also must keep an eye on the bottom line during the health crisis as their regular funding becomes much less predictable. Kim Frye Smith, the resource development director for the Orange County Free Clinic, acknowledged that she is concerned.
“The clinic relies heavily on private donations, fundraising and community participation to fund its operations and services. This year we are being hit especially hard as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on everyone, and nonprofits in particular, who depend on fundraising efforts. Our highly anticipated Hope Blooms Gala set for March 21 was postponed and most likely an event to that scale will not be rescheduled this year,” she said.
The clinic’s other community fundraising events also have been postponed or canceled.
“It is all tentative right now,” Smith said. “We cannot express how grateful we are to sponsors, contributors, ticket-holders and businesses who donated auction items and funds for understanding the situation. It is truly a community of caring and supportive individuals and groups.”
The Orange County Free Clinic can be reached at (540) 672-0793, Living Water Community Clinic is at (540) 854-5922 and the Piedmont Regional Dental Clinic is at (540) 661-0008.