Ellicott City resident Isuru Herath had been home from Cornell University for two months when he began searching for a way to fill his time. Like many college students, the 18-year-old was adjusting to life away from campus. For Herath, that meant looking for ways to volunteer.
In May, Cornell sent students a newsletter with volunteer opportunities available across the country. That’s how Herath, a rising sophomore at the Ivy League university, was introduced to TeleHealth Access for Seniors. Three months later, he now works as a co-leader for the organization’s Maryland chapter.
TeleHealth Access for Seniors is a nationwide, student-run organization that works to connect seniors with the necessary devices — including smartphones, tablets, iPads and laptops — to participate in health care services via technology. The organization partners with clinics, physicians’ practices and veterans hospitals in 26 states to get the needed devices to seniors, who are invited to keep them indefinitely.
In Maryland, volunteers are working with the University of Maryland Medical System and Mobile Medical Care clinics in Montgomery County.
Herath and Sasvi Kulasinghe, 18, are co-leaders for the Maryland chapter of the organization. The Ellicott City residents and 2019 graduates of Marriotts Ridge High School have spent their summer working alongside 20 student volunteers in the state collecting, organizing and delivering devices around the state in hopes of easing one of the many problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic: accessibility to health care.
“I thought [TeleHealth Access for Seniors] was interesting because I know a lot of seniors aren’t really comfortable using these newer devices, smart devices and things like that,” Herath said. “What has surprised me is how much clinics are relying on telehealth.”
The nonprofit accepts any functioning camera-enabled smart device; devices should be reset and cleared of personal data before being donated. Those who donate then have the option of shipping the device or arranging a socially distanced pickup. That’s when Kulasinghe, a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, and Herath begin the distribution process.
Peter Lowet, executive director of Mobile Medical Care, worked with Herath and Kulasinghe earlier this summer to connect patients at his six primary care locations — three mobile and three fixed sites — with the needed technology.
“[TeleHealth Access for Seniors was] looking for community health centers like us, so they reached out and asked if our target patient population could use their devices and we certainly could,” Lowet said.
Like many private practices, Mobile Medical Care quickly pivoted to telehealth when the coronavirus pandemic started in March, leaving many patients stranded. Lowet said the practice hadn’t used telehealth before, but once the pandemic hit, 75% of Mobile Medical Care’s care was being delivered remotely.
“Our patients face more technological barriers. The older demographic are those who might be least likely to have a smart device,” Lowet said.
Not only do many of his patients not have the necessary devices, he said, they also can lack the literacy in how to use the technology or lack internet connectivity altogether.
“The technology is one of, if not the, biggest barrier for effective telehealth,” he said. “During COVID-19, the practice is allowed to do telehealth over just the phone, but it’s far more effective for it to be a video conference.”
Since connecting with TeleHealth Access for Seniors, Lowet has distributed six of the 12 donated devices to patients.
So far, the nonprofit has distributed at least 1,800 devices nationwide, according to its website.
More than half of older adults have three or more chronic diseases, according to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Kulasinghe said that’s one of the reasons she was prompted to do this work; people with chronic conditions are at much higher risk to contract COVID-19 and to have complications associated with the virus. Easing the technological needs eases that risk, she said.
“If elderly patients have the option to stay at home and visit their doctor, it’s much easier for them as well,” Kulasinghe said.
Along with devices, TeleHealth Access for Seniors also accepts monetary donations to purchase Amazon Fire tablets to donate to seniors.
The organization’s website also offers free tech support to seniors who have received a donated device.
For now, Kulasinghe and Herath are collecting and fundraising for their next clinic at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Hematology and Oncology in Bel Air. So far, they have collected six of the 40 devices they need.
“What I’ve really learned is through this pandemic it’s really exacerbated the existing inequalities in medicine today,” Herath said. “Without these devices, some patients can’t afford to have regular doctor’s appointments.”
That’s why, Herath said, TeleHealth Access for Seniors will continue working into the fall.
“Telehealth is really an important option [for the] long term, not just in the early months of COVID but going forward,” Lowet said. “These are very challenging times from [a] health perspective and an economic perspective. The energy from the community that leads to these kinds of initiatives [is] really critical to nonprofit organizations ... continuing to serve people.”
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For more information about TeleHealth Access for Seniors, including how to donate, go to telehealthforseniors.org.