Sun Life Family Health Center

Nurse practitioner and Director of Medical Services Bessie Burk is seen May 8 at Sun Life Family Health Center in Casa Grande.

Editor’s note: Interviews for articles in this issue of Pinal Ways were conducted in early or mid-May, and reflect the state of the industry at that time.

CASA GRANDE — Today and into the future if you want to see a family doctor for a routine visit, you'd better get your computer running first.

Video health care has arrived, at least at Sun Life Family Health Center, which has offices throughout Pinal County.

Although society now is deep into online and non-face-to-face meetings and other consultations, computer doctor visits were developing long before the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

“The video services, video visits, telehealth has been in the works for Sun Life for quite some time,” said Bessie Burk, a nurse practitioner and director of medical services for Sun Life, who works at the Casa Grande complex, during a May 9 interview. “It was going to be launched in the future. That guideline got moved up because of the COVID-19. So all of the providers across all of Pinal County for Sun Life are capable of doing video visits except for Oracle, because Oracle does not have enough bandwidth for the video visits to latch. Who’d of thought that there was a place still in our county that does not have enough internet service to Skype?”

Sun Life patients have two options to access their doctor remotely. First, patients who are already registered in the center’s portal program can log in there. If not registered, patients will be emailed a link that can be used to set up a secure online site. Either way, the process is pretty simple, Burk said, and visits average 10 to 20 minutes, just as in a traditional visit in a cramped examination room. Patients are required to be ready on their computer or other electronic device 15 minutes before a scheduled video appointment.

“It’s a two-way conversation. The provider is capable of taking photos so if you have a wound or a rash, they can actually take a picture and enlarge it so they can get a better look at it,” Burk said. “If you have any sort of equipment at home that you’re using, such as a blood pressure meter or diabetic-testing equipment, have that ready so you can show them what your readings are because that will be helpful in figuring out what’s going on with you.”

Telehealth might be a sudden development from the patient end, but it is nothing new to medical professionals. The concept has been phased in over years, much like the cyber world itself. But this year, with the global pandemic, there has been a sense of urgency with ultra-safety measures in place. As such, medical personnel prefer to keep their distance from patients who potentially are infected.

“We thought this was going to be launched in a couple of years. Telehealth visits have been in our system as a nation for years. They’ve been around for a long time…,” Burk said. “Now it is a priority because of the risk of contagion and being that close to other human beings if you’re a high-risk person, and our high-risk people are ones that need us the most. If you’re an uncontrollable diabetic, if you’re having hypertension or chest pains and you’re on a lot of medications, you need to see and talk to your provider on a regular basis. Those are the people we don’t want in our building when we have an outbreak.”

Burk emphasized that telehealth services have not been “rushed” into use as a reaction to the pandemic “because the backbone was already there. We’ve put all of our resources, technology wise, into getting this implemented properly so that it is imbedded into our electronic medical records. It links to your labs and your medications and all of your histories just like a regular in-person visit.”

Patients using telehealth can range from pediatric ages to geriatric, and visits with dentists and behavioral health experts also are available from Sun Life. The cost of a visit is the same as a traditional one, Burk said.

“We can do all kinds of different things. A lot of our elder folks on Medicare, they have a Medicare wellness appointment and that’s a lot of screening and questions and lifestyle. Those can be done over a telehealth visit because there isn’t any requirement for listening to your lungs and heart,” Burk said.

Despite the technological advancement, some patients will need to visit their doctor in person, she added, especially for intensive, hands-on exams. And none of Sun Life's multiple Pinal County locations has been closed. 

“A child that needs vaccines obviously cannot be done from telehealth because we can’t do vaccines through the video. Those types of wellness need to be done in person.”

Patients can expect Sun Life to be conducting telehealth visits months, or perhaps years, from now when COVID-19, or whatever disease, has abated. As Burk pointed out, they were inevitable anyway.

“We will be having shortages — there’s different theories on how often they will occur — but we do want to be prepared,” she said.