San Juan Regional Medical Center gets CARES Act funding to expand telehealth services
AZTEC — Before COVID-19, San Juan Regional Medical Center used telehealth in a limited fashion to support providers and to do provider consultations, according to Chief Information Officer Matt Miliffe.
The pandemic changed things. San Juan Regional Medical Center and San Juan Health Partners worked quickly to expand telehealth offerings. Now the hospital is receiving CARES Act funding to help improve its technology and better provide that service.
"Demand (for telehealth) was immediate and has continued to grow," Miliffe said.
San Juan Regional Medical Center will receive $1.25 million in CARES Act funding to supply emergency generators as well as to make upgrades in the IT network, according to a press release from the office of Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM.
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IT upgrades, new generators on the way
These technology upgrades will support telehealth and field hospital operation projects that have been implemented in an effort to bolster the hospital's response to COVID-19.
The grant funding will be matched with $617,000 in local funds.
All locations except for San Juan Health Partners Urgent Care began offering a mixture of telephone and video visits in an effort to comply with public health orders, sustain the services offered and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to Barbara Charles, administrative director for San Juan Health Partners.
The medical center's network infrastructure wasn't designed to service the high demands of video consultations and Miliffe said the IT team has had to push the current capabilities.
"However, significant upgrades to the wired and wireless infrastructure is needed to sustain and improve the existing experience, and allow for the continued growth in telehealth demands driven by the pandemic," he said. "This funding will make a fundamental difference in our ability to serve our community’s needs."
One of the barriers that the center has seen is the remote nature of the community. Many patients can only connect through phone due to limited internet connectivity or cell service that can't support video.
"The inability to consistently connect by audio and video is an ongoing barrier," Charles said.
This funding is part of more than $2.24 million of CARES Act money that will be coming to northwest New Mexico to address healthcare and economic needs.
In addition to San Juan Regional Medical Center, the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, which is based in Gallup, has been awarded $990,000 to address economic development needs of small businesses and entrepreneurs that have been harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments serves Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties. According to the press release, the council of governments hopes to create 100 jobs and retain 100 jobs through a revolving loan fund that this funding will assist in creating.
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Heinrich said in a press release that he has been "moved by the resiliency and grit" of rural New Mexico communities as they have faced a variety of public health and economic challenges related to the pandemic.
"That is why I fought so hard to include funding in the CARES Act to help New Mexico’s rural health care systems, small businesses, and entrepreneurs to weather this storm," he said. "This funding is long-overdue and I will continue working for federal resources that New Mexico’s rural communities need to take on the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild our economy in a way that supports everyone."
Heinrich as well as Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-NM, announced $2.24 million of CARES Act funding for northwest New Mexico on Feb. 12.
Hospital: Telehealth is here to stay
San Juan Regional Medical Center President and CEO Jeff Bourgeois thanked the lawmakers for the funding in the press release and emphasized that the hospital provides essential healthcare services for the Four Corners area.
"This funding will ensure that we can meet the diverse needs of our patients and community and improve care for those we are privileged to serve," he said.
While the pandemic jump started the demand for telehealth in the community, Miliffe said the San Juan Regional Medical Center does not anticipate it fading away.
"Looking ahead to post-pandemic times, we see a long term and stable need for these services in our community as patients look to receive their healthcare in more of a consumer fashion, with services and offerings tailored around them as the individual," Charles, of San Juan Health Partners, said. "It is expected that the need or demand for telemedicine will continue long term. Many patients with health needs that may not require an in-person or face-to-face visit may find this option more flexible and convenient. Additionally, given the unknowns of the pandemic – this remains a safe alternative to in-person visits for patient to seek as needed or routine healthcare needs."
Charles said telehealth also plays a key role in the COVID to Home program, which allows COVID-19 patients to receive close monitoring while in self-isolation at their own houses.
"Because of this program’s close monitoring through telehealth visits, many patients have been able to stay out of the hospital and manage their care at home through the telephone or video calls. In other cases, caregivers have been able to intervene to coordinate a higher level of care for patients who needed it," she said. "To date, the COVID to Home program has helped more than 1,200 patients manage their care at home, something that would not have been possible without telehealth."
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story has been modified to correct the attribution on some quotes.