For rural communities, the continuing spread of COVID-19 has led to additional strains on already limited healthcare resources. Most significant is the shortage of physicians and clinics, an issue that has been prevalent in small and remote towns since before the pandemic.
When the number of COVID-19 cases began their exponential rise in March, the Doctor’s Volunteer Clinic—a clinic that provides access to affordable health services for the most vulnerable in the Southern Utah region—was suddenly left without the majority of its staff. This shortage of staffing diminished the safety net of services the clinic normally provides, such as primary and specialty care, mental health services, and dental care. One reason for the loss of staff was that, at 65+ years old, most of the partially retired physicians who volunteered at the clinic were now in the high-risk category for COVID-19. As a result, physician coverage was reduced to the single day of the week when the RVU-SU clinical team was onsite. Members of that team included: Brooks Beal, DO, Assistant Professor of Primary Care Medicine, Thomas Bigham, DO, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine; Mischa Coleman, DO, Assistant Professor of Osteopathic Principles and Practice; Mark Wardle, DO, Assistant Professor of Primary Care; and Ben Wilde, DO, FAAFP, Vice Chair of the Department of Primary Care Medicine.
For the clinic to continue operating in the midst of a pandemic, several changes had to take place. During the cooler months of March through May, explained Dr. Wilde, patients were welcomed by clinic staff at an outdoor desk and invited to wait for their appointment time in their cars. Dr. Bigham implemented telehealth appointments with patients who wanted the option of seeing their doctor from the comfort of their own home. “Dr. Bigham would initiate a video call to the patient’s phone or on a tablet that was provided to the patient. Many medical decisions, including prescriptions, order for testing, and specialist referrals were able to be provided via this telehealth approach,” said Dr. Wilde.
Of course, there were still patients who needed to come for in person examinations and procedures. These patients would be ushered to a dedicated exam room, and both the patient and physician would don appropriate personal protective equipment. Once temperatures rose into the triple digits, patients transitioned from waiting in their cars to a socially-distanced waiting room. The actual visit would take place with the patient in a room equipped with a monitor, speaker, and video camera and the physician would conduct the visit in an adjacent room. If a physical exam were required, protocols for donning PPE and reserving the dedicated exam room would be initiated.
Simply put, if it had not been for Dr. Bigham’s consistent service to patients, the Doctors’ Volunteer Clinic would not have been able to care for as many patients as it currently has. “His unhesitating, enthusiastic example of volunteer service is a shining example of the positive difference one person can make in a community,” said Dr. Wilde. “We are fortunate and proud to have Dr. Bigham as part of our RVU family.”
To learn more about the Doctor’s Volunteer Clinic or for ways to show your support, you can visit their website at https://www.volunteerclinic.org/.