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.


Montgomery County's two COVID-19 vaccine hubs received allocations of around 2,000 doses each this week. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Montgomery County's 2nd vaccine hub set in The Woodlands; Conroe hub, public health district to get more doses

The Woodlands hospital hub will begin offering vaccines on an invitation-only basis.

Pre-registration does not guarantee an appointment. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
COVID-19 vaccination pre-registration opening Jan. 25 in Montgomery County

MCPHD will open at 2 p.m. today. Lone Star Family Health Center has not yet announced a time.

Less than 7,000 COVID-19 cases remained active in Montgomery County as of Jan. 22. (Community Impact staff)
Montgomery County's active COVID-19 case count falls below 7K, 7 new deaths reported Jan. 20-22

Active cases in the county fell by several hundred this week, while COVID-19 hospitalizations among residents reached a new high.

DECA Beer Co. plans to open its family-friendly taproom in February. (Courtesy DECA Beer Co.)
Porter brewery DECA Beer Co. aims for early February opening

Some brew styles on tap will include stouts, Indian pale ales, berliner weisses and brown ales.

DDS Dentures   Implant Solutions in Humble rebranded in early January to Affordable Dentures & Implants. (Courtesy Affordable Care)
DDS Dentures + Implant Solutions in Humble rebrands to Affordable Dentures & Implants

The Humble location is one of six other Texas locations that were rebranded Jan. 1.

“Hope is on the horizon,” Fort Bend County Judge KP George said at a press conference Jan. 4. “The vaccine is here.”
Vaccine distribution starts in Fort Bend County and more top Houston-area news

Read the most popular news from the past week from the Houston area.

One local health system leader said he expects everyone, including those under age 65, will have access to the vaccine within the next 90 days. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Houston-area health system leaders talk progress, hurdles during COVID-19

Officials from CHI St. Luke’s Health and UTMB Health said community members must remain vigilant as case counts climb but that they expect the current surge to peak by early February.

Humble ISD has 439 active COVID-19 cases while New Caney ISD has 87 active cases as of Jan. 21. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
New Caney, Humble ISDs see leveling out of active COVID-19 cases

New Caney and Porter High Schools continue to have the highest cases per campus in New Caney ISD.

During a North Houston Association meeting Jan. 20, Jazz Hamilton—first vice president with the Retail Brokerage Services Group for CBRE—discussed how the future of retail will likely be shaped by the conveniences to which consumers have become accustomed amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
Pandemic-induced retail conveniences are here to stay, official says

According to Jazz Hamilton, first vice president with the Retail Brokerage Services group for CBRE, between January and November of 2020, consumers spent almost $550 billion online—a 33% increase from 2019.

The estimated number of active COVID-19 cases in Harris County has surpassed 50,000, reaching 51,362 as of the most recent data Jan. 20, according to the Harris County Public Health Department. (Community Impact staff)
Harris County coronavirus count: Active cases top 50,000

See the latest trends on COVID-19 in Harris County.

New Caney ISD's board of trustees approved rezoning middle school attendance zones ahead of Keefer Crossing Middle School's opening. (Rendering courtesy New Caney ISD)
New Caney ISD deals with superintendent fallout, rezones middle schools

“These decisions aren't something that they just do overnight. This takes a considerable amount of time for them to do,” Board President Chad Turner said. “It's also something that we also have had additional workshops and have asked a lot of difficult questions of our administration to see what options we have, and at the end of the day, this is the best option for the kids.