Caregiving in Crisis: Telehealth as a Tool for Caregivers During COVID-19

Michelle Baker

Signal sat down with John Schall, CEO of CAN, to discuss how the organization has transitioned their focus to caregiving during a crisis and how telehealth can be a tool for caregivers during COVID-19.

Caregiver Action Network (CAN) is the nation’s leading family caregiver organization, providing resources and support to Americans caring for loved ones with a range of health needs.
Tell us about CAN’s mission.
Caregiver Action Network promotes resourcefulness and respect for the more than 90 million family caregivers across the country. Our goals include:

  • Creating resourceful caregivers
  • Reducing caregiver stress
  • Creating respect for family caregivers
  • Creating capable caregivers

How has your organization had to adjust due to COVID-19?
COVID-19 has forced us to change the way we work, but not the mission of our work. Like so many other organizations, CAN is now operating almost exclusively remotely. Fortunately, the caregivers we serve have probably noticed little, if any, difference. We continue to provide online resources and support just as before, but we’ve begun to focus more on the difficulties of family caregiving during the pandemic, with caregiving in crisis, both on an individual level and nationally. We’ve even moved our in-person events online.
Findings from our Caregiver Help Desk have revealed that almost half of all caregivers have expressed that the global pandemic has significantly impacted their caregiving circumstances.
What’s on the horizon for family caregivers utilizing telehealth and medtech? Do you think this technology is here to stay?
With no end of the coronavirus pandemic in sight, and a potential second wave on the horizon, I do believe that telehealth is here to stay. Even after COVID-19 is behind us, I think it’s highly likely that telehealth could very well be the new reality for patients and family caregivers, much in the way that teleworking has become the new normal for millions of Americans.
Can you share an example of an innovation or success story that might not have happened without COVID-19?
I think the extensive use of telehealth itself is the success story. Before COVID-19, telehealth was used sparingly. But now, caregiving during the coronavirus crisis has left most family caregivers, their loved ones, and their healthcare providers with no other choice. COVID-19 has definitely accelerated the implementation and use of this technology. Medicine and caregiving may have gotten to where they are now eventually, but the pandemic has absolutely played an enormous role in speeding up the process.
This is National Family Caregivers Month – do you have any predictions about what caregivers need as the crisis evolves?
I doubt very much that we as a nation will go back to the way healthcare used to be pre-coronavirus. Telehealth is almost certainly part of the new normal. That said, the current status of telehealth as it relates to family caregiving is not perfect. One significant issue that needs to be resolved is with the video conferencing software. Some of the video conferencing platforms or health system policies do not allow a caregiver to join a visit from a third location. Family caregivers need to be able to participate in a virtual visit just as they would if they were in the exam room with their loved one. Telehealth programs that include the caregiver in the care management process stand a better chance of improving outcomes by ensuring adherence to their loved one’s care plan. Access to technology is also a big hurdle when it comes to broadly implementing telehealth as a long-term solution.
Is telehealth helping to address some of the isolation or mental health issues that caregivers are facing during the pandemic?
Whether a family caregiver’s loved one is living in their home, independently, or at a long-term care facility, the pandemic has definitely changed how and when they interact. In general, I’ve found that this has been to everyone’s detriment, unfortunately. Telehealth and video calls are nice—and they can help—but they’re not the same as actual physical human contact. Caregivers were already at higher risk for suffering from depression and isolation. Depression rates in the US are skyrocketing due to the pandemic. Depression is a huge issue for family caregivers – and all that was before COVID-19. Many family caregivers can no longer be with their loved one. This has left many feeling sad and with a sense that they’re not being good caregivers.
Do you see any policy or regulatory challenges that need to be addressed to facilitate/ensure telehealth use for the long-term?
 One thing that needs to happen is that the current, temporary waiver that allows Medicare to pay for telehealth for all enrollees should be made permanent. As policymakers consider extending and further expanding telehealth resources, they need to consider family caregivers. Also, health insurance needs to continue to pay for telehealth visits and allow family caregivers to connect to virtual visits from a third location if necessary.

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