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Study finds UIHC telemedicine program may have reduced COVID hospitalizations early in the pandemic

Natalie Krebs
IPR File
All patients with active COVID-19 infections at UnityPoint's Des Moines hospitals have signs like this on their doors reminding staff to take extra precautions.

A University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics telemedicine program may have reduced COVID-19 hospitalizations early in the pandemic, according to a recent study.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, looked at 1,128 patients in UIHC’s home monitoring program from March to June 2020.

The program allows patients who tested positive for COVID-19 to monitor themselves at home with the remote oversight of a health care team.

"Anyone who tested positive for COVID, we would take a look at their medical history and look if they had underlying problems that put them at high risk for bad outcomes or worse outcomes, so advanced age, obesity, etc.," said Andy Bryant, a hospitalist and clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at UIHC, who was one of the authors on the study.

Low-risk patients in the program were monitored by family medicine doctors, while high-risk patients, who made up 30.7 percent of patients in the study, were overseen by hospitalists, Bryant said.

The study found 6.2 percent of patients were hospitalized and another 1.2 percent were admitted to the ICU in the 3 and a half month study time frame.

"Looking at places that had, you know, 12 percent hospitalization rates early in the pandemic and seeing that our rate was lower than that is something that's great," Bryant said.

High-risk patients were more likely to be hospitalized — 14.2 percent were admitted, compared to just 2.7 percent of patients deemed low-risk.

Just 54.4 percent of the study's participants identified as white, and 18.8 percent required a language interpreter.

More than 90 percent of Iowans identify as white, according to the most recent Census.

Bryant said the study period covered the early part of the pandemic when several large meatpacking plants in across the state experienced large COVID-19 outbreaks. These plants employ high rates of foreign-born and minority workers.

Studies have found overall minority populations have been disproportionally affected by COVID and are more likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus.

Bryant said one reason he thinks the program was successful is because it helped eliminate transportation and language barriers that some patients face.

"We really tried to adapt our program to better care for this patient population," he said.

"[It was] being able to care for them at home, get the kits delivered to them. If they don't have access to a computer, we could do telephone appointments with an interpreter."

Bryant said UIHC is looking at expanding the model into other departments like cardiology.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter