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Great Falls healthcare providers use telemedicine to reduce coronavirus risk

Posted at 5:47 PM, Mar 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-23 11:02:31-04

GREAT FALLS — As the risk of coronavirus looms over Montana, and now Cascade County, health officials are using telemedicine systems to avoid face-to-face interaction between patients and providers.

On Saturday evening, the City-County Health Department in Great Falls confirmed three cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Cascade County, bringing the total number of cases in Montana to at least 30 (click here for details).

Benefis Health System is now in the process of expanding their telemedicine system to help risk to patients.

Benefis Medical Group Chief Operating Officer Kathy Hill said that while telemedicine has been in place at Benefis for several years, limitations on visits in homes prevented the system from being operable on a large scale the way it has the potential for now.

“We have been doing telemedicine for over five years, but recently, with the relaxation of regulatory and payment structures, we have been able to quickly expand our use of telemedicine,” Hill said.

This large-scale system will use Zoom, a video communications system, to target three key areas: providers with underlying health concerns, patients with underlying health concerns, and medical groups. Benefis has already switched over all their medical groups-grief support, cardiac rehab, etc.- to telemedicine and are in the process of transitioning their vulnerable providers and patients to the system as well.

Hill said providers will primarily use phone calls as a method of telemedicine but can opt to use video or in person appointments if necessary.

Great Falls Nurse Practitioner Kimberly Heck also stepped up to offer virtual medical services to those in need. She owns medical spa Allure Aesthetics, but had to close her doors due to city restrictions. Afterwards, she decided to use her medical expertise to help others during this critical time. “I had to close down my business during this and wanted to do something to help the community. Just trying to keep people out of walk-in clinics if possible, so we don’t mix healthy with sick,” Heck said.

Now by simply downloading the app called “Maven," patients across Montana can input their information and be connected with Heck for a video appointment.

Each virtual session costs $18. All proceeds from Heck’s appointments will be donated to the Great Falls Rescue Mission. Heck said if you’d like to schedule an appointment but encounter technical issues, you can message her on Facebook.

State officials are keeping a list of confirmed cases on an updated map and website - click here to visit the site.

. A spokesman for the Montana COVID-19 Task Force says that positive test results for Montana residents who are currently outside the state will not be included in the totals reported on the website, and said: "The state recognizes that its reporting totals will differ from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) total as a result of these reporting processes."

As of Sunday, March 22, the public health lab in Helena has completed 1,392 tests for (COVID-19). Gardner said that the state lab is operating seven days per week during the pandemic.