SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - To ease patient fears of COVID-19, two San Luis Obispo County hospitals are now offering virtual visits to the emergency room. Tenet Health Central Coast believes it's the first program of it's kind in the nation.
Tenet Health operates Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo and Twin Cities Hospital in Templeton.
A phone line is available 24 hours a day to reach a registered triage nurse. The nurse may advise you to come into the emergency room right away, or set up a Tele-ER visit with a board-certified emergency room physician on your smart phone, tablet or computer.
"I think the best thing about it is just kind of bridging that gap and giving patients a safe haven to ask for help and find out if they need to come in," said Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center Director of Emergency Services, Dr. Brad Knox. "Then when they do, again there's already been that reassurance that we're expecting you, it's a safe place to be and we're equipped to take care of you."
Hospitals nationwide have reported significant drops in people coming in for treatment for issues as serious as heart attacks since COVID restrictions began in March. Knox said patient volume has been down by more than 50 percent in the Emergency Room at various times.
"The thing that we really don't want is people getting sicker inside their homes and not seeking the medical care that they need," Knox said. "So that's why this avenue has opened up."
People with ailments like a rash or a cut, and even mild COVID or upper respiratory symptoms can be helped at home by the Tele-ER system.
Regarding the cost, Tenet Health says Medicare patients will typically pay $20 for a Tele-ER visit. For those who have to pay out of pocket, the facility fee that can cost hundreds, or even more than $1000 for checking into the E.R. at some hospitals, will be "significantly less" for a Tele-ER visit. Just as with a typical emergency room visit, a physician fee will also be charged.
If you are seen by a doctor via Tele-ER and advised to come into the ER, the facility will waive the Tele-Health fee.
"I've been in E.R.'s for about 20 years now and if there's one thing that's always frustrated me it's when someone calls the department asking for help we're legally required to say we can't give you any medical advice over the phone," Knox said. "Which is just a disservice to the community. It's a disservice to the people.
"I mean, these people are calling asking for help and we've got the information," Knox continued. "This idea that you can't tell it to them is, it just doesn't make sense. So the nice thing about this program is that's kind of been removed. There is a number they can call. They can speak to a registered triage nurse, if not the physician themselves later on down the line, and they can explain what their symptoms are. They can be talking to a provider that says, 'Yes, those symptoms are concerning and you really should come into the E.R. to seek care,' and kind of give that reassurance that it's a safe place to come to."
The number to call is (805) 546-7990. https://www.tenethealthcentralcoast.com/