During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth services have provided a vital connection between healthcare providers and patients, allowing them to receive care in the safety of their homes.

Throughout the crisis, Franciscan Health hospitals and Franciscan Physician Network have aimed to meet the needs of patients virtually, avoiding offices and waiting rooms. Our response to COVID-19 has included over 100,000 telemedicine visits, especially important for the most compromised patients, according to Craig Miller, Franciscan’s Administrative Director of Ambulatory Services.

Now, Franciscan Alliance’s investment in expanding virtual care will be bolstered by an award from the Federal Communications Commission COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The $200 million program, part of the CARES Act passed by Congress, will help healthcare providers purchase telecommunications, broadband connectivity and devices necessary for providing telehealth services.

Franciscan Alliance will receive $929,834 from the program, helping to purchase laptops, tablets, webcams and headsets used for virtual care, along with remote monitoring devices for home healthcare patients.

Beth Keultjes, Administrative Director of Franciscan VNS (Visiting Nurse Services), said that while Franciscan has been doing remote patient monitoring through VNS since 2005, the FCC award “is going to allow us to expand our services to do even more for these critical care patients.”

Keultjes said Franciscan will install a monitoring system in the homes of high-risk patients, providing monitoring equipment to measure things like blood pressure, oxygen levels and weight each day. The readings go to critical care nurses, who can initiate proactive care triggered by remote monitoring.

“Beyond care, an integrated Franciscan response patient education and system activation. Early coordinated care can then prevent progression of disease that may otherwise result in emergency care and hospitalization,” Keultjes said. “What the FCC did expand our capacity to safely care for COVID patients in their homes. If they’re not critically ill, the preferred place for people may be their home.”

Miller said the FCC award is “a tremendous feather in our cap for what everyone has pulled together during this crisis.”

Virtual care has become a key tool in helping reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities and healthcare facilities, while lessening the potential of future surges. “Patients really appreciate the connection virtual care can provide, enabling them to stay home, but with our teams ready to help,” he added.

Caitlin Leahy, senior vice president of Franciscan Health Foundation and Community Health Improvement, which spearheaded the FCC application, said, “Franciscan Health Foundation is committed to raising funds to help keep our patients, coworkers, and communities safe, especially during this unparalleled global pandemic. Many of the investments Franciscan Alliance has made to transform the way we deliver care would not have been possible without the generous philanthropic partnerships that we have forged with our funders, including the Federal Communications Commission, businesses, and our many individual donors. This FCC-supported investment will directly, and positively impact the communities we are privileged to serve during COVID-19, and for years to come.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement, “With the adoption of the $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the FCC can now take immediate steps to provide funding so that more patients can be treated at home, freeing up valuable hospital beds for those who most need them and reducing the risk of exposure to the virus.”