Connecting while Distancing

By: Colin Baumgartner

(One positive change ushered in by COVID-19 was widespread and almost immediate acceptance of telehealth as an education and treatment option. This blog describes the challenges faced by Maryhaven staff during the transition and is the second in a two-part series. Missed part one? Click here to see what clients had to say.)

When others began “Zooming in” early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Bruce Jones found himself zooming out, figuratively speaking.

Jones, the Administrative Coordinator for Maryhaven’s Gambling Intervention Program, pulled out his Rolodex, picked up the phone and started calling all of his current and past clients. He was aided by a bit more free time and regulations that, for the first time, permitted telehealth treatment delivery. Ultimately, though, he was driven by the knowledge that a shutdown and long isolation period could be devastating for many.

Some clients he hadn’t seen or spoken to in years appreciated the chance to chat for a few minutes. Others chose to restart ongoing sessions as they adjust to a new normal.

Many call the ability to confer via phone and Zoom a huge benefit, if not the main reason they chose to seek out or reconnect with Maryhaven. A recent survey from Medical Economics helps explain this trend.

“With patients fully embracing the virtual era, their preference and adoption of telemedicine will spur action within the industry — and necessarily so. Telemedicine isn’t going anywhere: 83% of patients expect to use telemedicine after the pandemic resolves.”

Obviously, you’re better protected from COVID-19 by limiting external travel, but that’s far from the only benefit. Telehealth also reduces the need for travel time, so appointments can more easily fit into busy schedules and cut costs for gas, child or elder care.

“At first, people were scared,” said Gambling Counselor Maria Garner. “There were so many unknowns about the virus. Many clients and staff, including me, were stressed about the pandemic so we appreciated the move to telehealth, even if we weren’t fully prepared for it.”

Initially, Garner and Jones struggled to master all of the possible tools, from Zoom to Skype to FaceTime to Microsoft Teams, not to mention the phone calls. They also noted that access to technology was far from universally available to all of their clients.

Maryhaven stepped in to help where they could, supported by many generous donors. Take Michael’s story, for example. In addition to helping clients get phones, donors have also provided internal equipment upgrades, so counselors could tap into all resources remotely.

With the needed hardware and software secure, it then came down to operator attitude.

“In the end, it’s not as hard as it looks,” said Garner. “The clients really only need to find one platform they’re comfortable with, because we’re using them all.”

“It was certainly thrust on us,” added Jones. “But now that we’ve gotten the hang of it, all of these technologies will be part of a continuing effort and a tool in our treatment tool kit.”

Jones added that making a real connection in a virtual world does take a bit more effort. With clients preferring phone calls, he finds multiple touchpoints throughout the week, rather than a single, longer appointment. He also prefers secure video chats to audio, when possible, as they allow both the client and the counselor to pick up on facial expressions, gestures and all the visual cues that facilitate deeper conversation.

“The more personal, the more productive,” he explains.

Personal can mean in-person as well. Maryhaven has been able to offer in person face-to-face sessions since early this summer, in addition to telehealth options. As Jones notes, that’s a valuable resource for many, in a time where things like Gamblers Anonymous meetings are still all virtual.

“I’ve noticed that gamblers, in particular, value face-to-face interaction,” added Garner. “I’ve had quite a few clients return to face-to-face, and many prefer a hybrid model depending on what fits their schedule best.”

And Maryhaven is there to help. Just like telehealth and technology, they’re not going anywhere.

About the Author

Colin Baumgartner

Blogger for Maryhaven
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