Local businesses helping health care providers roll out telehealth services are expanding during the coronavirus outbreak as doctors across the U.S. turn to video calls to talk with patients.

Last month, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order directing hospitals to postpone any elective procedures like joint replacement or cosmetic surgery. That should help free up space for an influx of patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and to protect patients who haven’t contracted the illness.

Instead, in another executive order, he urged doctors to use telehealth to treat patients. Telehealth refers to doctors communicating with patients electronically, using tools like video calls. In March, the federal government loosened some restrictions on telehealth, making it easier for doctors to use programs like FaceTime to talk to patients.  

That has been a boon for many communications companies, such as the video conferencing software company Zoom. Its stock price doubled last month. Local companies working on telehealth are growing as well. 

Bill Grana, the CEO of Brentwood based HCTec, said his company has done more telehealth work in the last few weeks than it’s done in the last two years. 

“This whole situation has brought telemedicine to the forefront,” he said. “Telemedicine has been around for a long time. I think this event is going to make the tool, the technology more mainstream.”

HCTec works with hospital systems to help them manage patient-facing technology systems like telehealth, patient web portals and electronic medical records. Historically, much of the companies work focused on medical records systems.

During the coronavirus outbreak, HCTec, which doesn’t create or sell software itself, is providing health care organizations with workers who can quickly set up, expand and manage telehealth software created by other companies. Those workers make sure the system runs smoothly for health care workers and patients.  

In addition to telehealth, the company has been working on adapting electronic medical records systems to work better during the coronavirus outbreak. HCTec is also helping health care providers to set up IT systems and software that allows employees to work from home when possible.

For many health care providers, telehealth is a new service or one that was rarely used prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Franklin-based chain of health clinics Fast Pace Health, rolled out in-home telehealth services for patients last month. Previously, patients could use telehealth at a physical clinic to connect with a doctor remotely if doctors at that clinic were too busy. Now, patients can connect with doctors from home using the videoconferencing software Zoom.

When the company first rolled out telehealth appointments from home last month, doctors completed about 300 visits per week. By early April, that number had jumped to about 1,000 visits per week.

“It's almost doubling every day. People are really latching on to it,” Fast Pace director of marketing Grant Hart said. 

That kind of surge can be a challenge for both doctors and patients, especially if they aren’t familiar with the technology. 

The Franklin-based communications company Dialog is trying to make that learning curve a little bit easier. Dialog is a platform that allows companies to send text messages to employees, clients or patients. Many doctors’ offices use this type of texting services to send appointment reminders to patients.

Now, Dialog wants to use texting to make it easier for patients to use telehealth software. The company can send patients a text, which almost all patients will know how to read, with a link that automatically opens up the software.

“Most people who are doing telehealth right now are trying to overcome some of the barriers. Does my patient have a computer? Do they have WiFi at home? Do they have speakers on their computer? Is there a camera?” Dialog president Brandon Daniell said. “What we've said is ... every mobile phone out there is a telehealth device.”

Grana said the part of HCTec working telehealth is growing, but some of that growth is offset by losses in other areas. Daniell said many of Dialog’s clients have taken a financial hit as well.

Even as they are gearing up for a wave of COVID-19 patients, the suspension of elective procedures and stay-at-home orders have hurt revenues for health care companies. On April 1, Williamson Medical center furloughed about 200 employees after seeing a “significant decrease in hospital revenue.” 

"We've seen some opportunities put on hold because our clients are focused on the COVID crisis, and we've seen other things accelerate ... It's been a fairly equal balance of pluses and minuses," Grana said. 

Both Grana and Daniell said they’re hopeful that this virus outbreak will elevate the profile of communications businesses.  

“Communication is mission critical, but it's not something people lose sleep over. If I'm a hospital, I'm thinking about my new X-Ray machine ... I don't think about how I need to communicate better,” Daniell said. “This is a seminal event in our lives.”

After the coronavirus outbreak, he thinks health care companies will use devote more resources to making sure their communications systems are as up-to-date as their X-ray machines. 

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