Maquoketa health professionals are turning to technology and tightened restrictions as they try to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Medical Associates of Maquoketa PC on Wednesday will begin using telehealth to visit with some patients who have general complaints such as rashes or simple sore  throats.

“It’s one way to keep healthy patients away from the illness and stop the spread,” explained Jennifer Orr, practice administrator at Medical Associates.

Telehealth is the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies for long-distance clinical health care, public health, etc. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, and more.

Orr said public-health officials are urging consumers to use telehealth services to get remote treatment, to fill prescriptions, and to get medical attention during the pandemic. Companies that offer virtual appointments are reporting a surge in demand, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

During the pandemic, HIPPA regulations have loosened slightly only so doctor’s clinics can use cell phones to videoconference with patients whose complaints qualify, Orr said. Confidentiality will be maintained, she emphasized.

How will telehealth work?

A patient will call Medical Associates. A designated nurse will “triage” the patient, obtaining health information to determine if a telehealth visit is the appropriate next step. If deemed appropriate, the nurse will schedule a time to videoconference with patient.

At the appointed time, the nurse will initiate a videoconference with the patient and conduct a similar medical workup as they do in the office. Then the doctor or nurse practitioner will take over. For instance, if the patient has a rash, the patient can hold the phone to the rash so the medical professional can see it and decide the next course of action.

“It helps ease the burden of screening every patient at the door, asking them questions, taking their temperature, at our door or in their car,” Orr explained.

The videoconference will be recorded and stored in the patient’s electronic medical record, Orr said.

For more serious cases such as breathing problems or bleeding, patients would be asked to come into the office as usual.

Medical Associates conducted “a handful” of telehealth visits in the last week and it worked well, Orr said. Employees were using Facetime on iPhones but are looking at similar apps for Android phones and installing more necessary software on their computers to assist with telehealth efforts.

Medical care office changes

Medical Associates hasn’t seen an influx of patients since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Orr said Friday afternoon.

“It’s just a matter of time — days, really” before the virus is detected in Jackson County, Orr said. “We don’t want to scare people, we just need people to be very serious and aware of it. It takes only one person to be infected.”

Maquoketa two doctors’ offices and the hospital have changed some policies and hours to accommodate patients and to try to slow the virus’ spread.

Starting Tuesday, Medical Associates reserved its 8-10 a.m. hours for well visits. “This is a great time for our most vulnerable patients, including the elderly and those with underlying health concerns to come into our office,” officials explained on the clinic’s Facebook page.

Sick-patient visits will commence after 10 a.m. and continue until 5 p.m., when the office closes.

Both Medical Associates and Maquoketa Family Clinic also will be closed Saturday, March 28, with future Saturday hours to be discussed.

Both clinics also want to limit the number of non-essential people in the doctor’s office, so staff are asking patients to bring only one person, if necessary, with them to the appointment.

Maquoketa Family Clinic also is asking well-patients, including those with medical problems, to schedule their appointments in the morning, where they will be “taken directly to a private exam room upon presentation to the front desk. This should limit any exposure to other patients in the office,” Dr. Roger Waller explained on his Facebook page.

“Patients that are ill are being scheduled in the afternoon. Upon arrival to our parking lot, we are asking ill-patients to phone our front desk. A nurse and provider will then come out to your car and do an evaluation and possible testing if needed,” Waller continued.

As of last Friday, Jackson County Regional Health Center restricted emergency department visitors to no more than one person who must be age 18 or older per visitor. Hospital officials prefer to have only the person seeking treatment in the department if possible.