MANKATO — Technological advancements enable medical professionals to continue caring for nursing home residents as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

The pandemic’s onset forced nursing home facilities to severely limit visitors in order to protect residents, as the respiratory illness is especially deadly for older adults.

Just as families are leaning on technology in lieu of seeing loved ones in person, doctors and nurses turned to telemedicine to continue seeing patients living in nursing homes.

Mayo Clinic Health System is doing so through digital tablets it provided to 17 nursing homes in its southwest Minnesota region. The facilities include Mankato’s Ecumen Pathstone Living, Laurel’s Peak, Oaklawn and Hillcrest, along with others in St. Peter, Waseca, Le Sueur and other cities.

The tablets are helping providers care for the most vulnerable patients, said Susan Laabs, the health system’s regional medical director for senior services, in a release.

“These patients can’t receive visitors, and they can’t leave the facility for care, so this is a good way for our providers to meet with our patients and provide care exactly where they are,” she said.

Under normal circumstances, physicians or other providers make periodic rounds to examine multiple patients at nursing home facilities. The visits could be monthly for standard appointments or as often as twice per week for acute cases at Lake Shore Inn in Waseca, said Director of Nursing Beth Jongbloedt.

Those rounds are now made via telemedicine. Initial appointments at the Waseca nursing home went smooth enough, Jongbloedt said, with residents adjusting to the approach despite some being new to the technology.

“It’s been going well so far,” she said. “It’s been a couple weeks since we started.”

Monarch Healthcare Management COO Marc Halpert offered a similar endorsement for the telemedicine appointments. Monarch operates Mankato’s Oaklawn, Hillcrest and Laurel’s Peak facilities, all of which received upgraded WiFi networks before the pandemic started.

“We made a big investment upgrading WiFi at all of our sites,” Halpert said. “It’s really coming to use now needing the extra bandwidth for all these telehealth calls and Facetime with families.”

Mankato Clinic switched to a similar telemedicine strategy to continue seeing vulnerable patients. The clinic’s Bluestone Vista program involves health care providers caring for residents at 30 assisted living facilities in the area.

Most appointments are now done virtually at the assisted living facilities. The nursing staff at the facilities have been helpful in the process, said Dr. Tom Brennan in a statement.

“We have already implemented telehealth visits and have found them to be very beneficial for our older adults in assisted living and nursing facilities,” he said. “We can see our patients, talk to them, and do most of what we would do in a face-to-face visit.”

The clinic is also exploring setting up telemedicine visits for patients in nursing homes.

Nursing home residents would still be transported to clinics or hospitals if they need emergency medical care. The virtual option is meant for more routine appointments, like physicals or medication management.

Health systems were already incorporating more telemedicine into their care models over the last decade or so. Nursing home officials expect it to remain a helpful option at least for the duration of the pandemic.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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