Lake Houston-area medical personnel transition, settle into telemedicine amid COVID-19

(Designed by Ethan Pham)
(Designed by Ethan Pham)

(Designed by Ethan Pham)

Image description
(Designed by Ethan Pham)
Image description
Source: UTMB Health/Community Impact Newspaper (Designed by Ethan Pham)
Many hospitals and primary care facilities in the Lake Houston area are adapting to offer telehealth services amid the coronavirus pandemic. Even after state stay-at-home orders ended in May, many residents still wanted to limit their risk of exposure.

The need for more telehealth systems in the area has long been a topic of discussion among local health experts. Harris County Public Health released the “Harris Cares: A 2020 Vision of Health in Harris County” in November. The report recommended HCPH invest in more versatile alternatives to standard hospitals and clinics, including mobile health vehicles and telehealth.

Dr. Sherri Onyiego, interim director of nutrition and chronic disease prevention at HCPH, said via email transportation barriers and health insurance can deter people from seeking health care in traditional settings, pushing the need for more mobile and telehealth services.

“It is important to offer alternatives to traditional ‘brick and mortar health care’ given that health truly happens outside the four walls of the traditional health care system,” she said.

Some Lake Houston-area facilities and hospitals have launched telehealth services during the outbreak to meet the increasing needs of the community.

Meanwhile, other Lake Houston-area medical practices have been offering some form of virtual assistance for years, such as UTMB Health, which cares for 80% of the state prison population via telehealth, or My Eyelab in New Caney, which relies on telehealth for its business model.

Stepping up to serve

The need for these services became more apparent to Kingwood Emergency Hospital CEO Jeremy Brynes when the coronavirus pandemic hit the region. As more residents stayed home the hospital was inundated with calls, Brynes said. In mid-March, the hospital launched telehealth services.

“We wanted to make sure people had access to get the right information ... [and] that we gave them the opportunity to ask from the safety of their homes questions of a physician,” he said.

Telehealth services are also beneficial for patients looking for affordable health care options. A telehealth visit at the hospital will cost a patient a flat rate of $30—what many insured patients might have as a co-pay, Brynes said.

“We wanted to give people a way of saying, ‘You know what, [for] $30 I can speak to a doctor, get a prescription if I need it and get advice on whether I should be concerned,’” he said.

Brynes said the hospital may continue to offer telehealth services.

“I think people that gain more experience with virtual visits will find it’s a great alterative to a physical environment to get care,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cynthia Smoot, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Pediatrics Humble Kingwood who has worked at Texas Children’s Pediatrics for 17 years, also began offering telemedicine in March.

In the past, Smoot said she would accept photos from patients’ families if needed to help in diagnosing a medical issue without an in-person visit, but the coronavirus pushed Texas Children’s Pediatrics to launch telehealth services.

Smoot said telemedicine still cannot replace specific types of pediatric appointments, such as checkups. However, about 25% of her patients switched to telehealth services during the pandemic, she said.

“I think for follow-ups, for certain rashes, for just questions, there’s a lot of benefits to using telemedicine,” she said. “But it doesn’t work well for everything.”

Foot in the door

For some medical offices and facilities, telehealth services were already a major part of practice. Ryan Galvez, managing partner of My Eyelab in New Caney, said the optometry franchise specializes in offering telemedicine and selling eyeglasses from its brick-and-mortar office.

My Eyelab offers patients the ability to get an initial assessment with a patient coordinator, then meet with an optometrist remotely. Benefits of the semi-remote appointment include quicker appointments and access to doctors who speak various languages, Galvez said.

“This method can take care of just about 91% of everybody that comes in through our doors,” he said.

Additionally, the University of Texas Medical Branch has been offering telehealth services for decades, with UTMB Health physicians providing virtual medical, dental and mental health services for adult and juvenile inmates across Texas’ prison system. Dr. Owen Murray, vice president of offender health services at UTMB, said the system cares for about 80% of the state’s prison populations.

UTMB Health expanded its telehealth service in the mid-2000s beyond Texas’ prison system to provide primary care and mental health services virtually to the public. In the last 10 years, UTMB’s telehealth numbers have almost doubled from 82,322 appointments in fiscal year 2010-11 to 156,328 appointments in FY 2019-20.

While UTMB has had great success with telemedicine, Murray said there are some specialties where practicing telemedicine will not be as effective as in-person appointments.

“Being able to do both subspecialty care, mental health care as well as primary care, telemedicine is an excellent vehicle,” he said.
By Kelly Schafler

Editor, Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood

Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.


COVID-19 patients now make up an estimated 43.4% of ICU patients in Harris County hospitals, up from 38.1% on July 3 and 25.5% on June 22.
As Harris County hospitalizations rise, COVID-19 patients now take up more than 40% of ICU beds

COVID-19 patients now make up an estimated 43.4% of ICU patients in Harris County hospitals, up from 38.1% on July 3 and 25.5% on June 22.

About 6,000 people are expected to attend the Texas Republican Convention at the  George R. Brown Convention Center on July 16-18. (Courtesy Visit Houston)
Mayor Turner calls for cancelation, precautions ahead of Texas Republican Convention

The event is expected to draw 6,000 attendees to Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center.

New Caney ISD Superintendent Kenn Franklin said in a phone interview he believes it is too soon to make any concrete decisions regarding the next school year. (Screenshot courtesy New Caney ISD YouTube channel)
New Caney ISD superintendent awaits further TEA guidance before proposing 2020-21 plans for school year

New Caney ISD Superintendent Kenn Franklin said in a phone interview he believes it is too soon to make any concrete decisions regarding the next school year.

Early voting is underway in Harris County. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)
DATA: More than 80,000 Harris County residents cast ballots in the first week of early voting

Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election began June 29 after Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the original date due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Early voting was underway at the South County Community Center in The Woodlands on July 2. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
More than 11,600 ballots cast in Montgomery County through first 5 days of early voting for July 14 runoff

More than 8,500 Republicans and 3,100 Democrats voted early through July 5.

Residents walk through a shopping center in north Conroe wearing masks before Gov. Greg Abbott issued his statewide mask order. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
In Montgomery County, ‘individual liberties’ a sticking point amid public health crisis

The county's sheriff's department said it will not enforce Abbott's latest order, which mandates face masks in public.

Pharmacist Emily Smith opens a cooler for a patient to place their self-swab coronavirus test at a Walmart drive-thru testing site in McKinney on June 29. (Shelby Tauber/The Texas Tribune)
Poll says Texans' hopes for quick return to pre-coronavirus life are fading

Texans remain focused on the coronavirus pandemic and are less optimistic about returning the state to normal quickly, according to polling by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

The county's total COVID-19 case count rose by nearly 200 since July 2. (Community Impact staff)
Montgomery County adds 101 active COVID-19 cases, 96 recoveries over Independence Day weekend

The county's active COVID-19 case count and recovery total reached a new high July 6.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller recently backed a movement calling for the reopening of winery and distillery tasting rooms and brewery and brewpub taprooms. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Agriculture Commissioner joins voices calling for reopening of tasting rooms, taprooms

In a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said demand from distilleries and breweries provides an important revenue stream to the state's farmers.

New COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths all rose in Harris County from July 3-5.
Harris County coronavirus count: 2,489 new cases, 13 deaths confirmed over holiday weekend July 3-5

Active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations hit all-time highs in Harris County on July 5.

Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a set of recommended social distancing guidelines June 2 that go beyond what is required by Gov. Greg Abbott. (Courtesy HTV)
Houston mayor recommends limit on gatherings over 10, businesses scale back to 25% capacity

The mayor is recommending businesses scale back to 25% and residents avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

The First Street Foundation's dataset includes a forecast models that anticipate the effects of climate change and sea level rise. (Screenshot via First Street Foundation)
Analysis: FEMA may be undercounting national total flood risk by as much as 70%

The new dataset includes an interactive Flood Factor dashboard that anyone can use to assess the risk of flooding over a 30-year period for any address.