The enduring COVID-19 pandemic has meant that a simple trip to the doctor’s office can be laced with health risks. To mitigate that risk, many healthcare providers have pivoted to offering telehealth services. But what about seniors who don’t have the requisite devices, or who aren’t sure how to use them, especially when it comes to navigating high-tech healthcare websites?
TeleHealth Access for Seniors, a new initiative launched in March, is closing those telehealth access gaps by providing devices, instructions, and tech support to seniors and low-income communities. By putting resources in the hands of those who need them most, vulnerable communities can get the healthcare they need and minimize risk.
To date the organization has donated roughly 2,500 devices, raised $120,000, engaged 375 volunteers, and partnered with 105 clinics across 26 states—all led by the organization’s three co-founders, who are all still in college or high school.
Aakshi Agarwal and Hannah Verma, two Yale students, founded Telehealth Access with Hannah’s younger brother Arjun, a junior in high school. State leads, responsible for partnering with clinics and hospitals in their states to distribute the devices, are also college students.
However, devices alone aren’t enough. Telehealth Access has also worked to ensure that once recipients get the devices, they’ll be able to use them by offering guides in five languages and live tech support via their volunteer network between the hours of 8 a.m.and 2 a.m. Eastern time.
Telehealth Access receives devices in two ways, through donations or by purchasing them with donations and grants. When buying, the organization opts for older-generation Amazon Fire tablets and the like, which can go for around $50 per device. The seniors who receive the devices keep them allowing them to use the devices to connect with their family and friends. That’s extra important in a world where nearly a quarter of older adults were already experiencing isolation before the pandemic.
Saketh Kollipara, a pre-med sophomore at Emory University, became the organization’s Minnesota lead this summer when he found himself at home with family and a lot of free time during quarantine after his planned internship was cancelled. “They reached out to the pre-med club at Emory. There was no chapter in Minnesota and such a need for devices, so I wanted to start a team here,” he says.
In setting up the Minnesota effort, Kollipara first had to clear state hurdles like registering as a 501(c)(3) in the state in order to advertise, collect donations, and recruit additional volunteers. The latter is what Kollipara is focused on now, partnering with Wayzata High School in suburban Minneapolis to grow his team, the newest in the organization.
One thing Kollipara didn’t expect was the length of time it would take to find a partner organization. “Minneapolis has very large hospitals, a lot of them maybe have higher standards,” he says. One hospital he reached out to would only accept the latest generation of iPads. “That’s not feasible, so I moved into more neighborhood-level clinics,” he says. Just last month he completed the first drop-off in the state, in partnership with the Minneapolis-based Neighborhood HealthSource network of clinics. “It’s just a really good feeling when you give [the donation] to the clinic,” he says.
In California, a bigger state with a much larger population, state leads Rajit Agarwal and Jennifer Yoon take a different approach, currently focusing on three districts: Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Bay Area. Agarwal and Yoon, also students, manage a team of roughly 20 volunteers who give what they can based on their class load and other demands. So far they’ve focused on partnering with clinics whose needs for a few dozen devices can be more easily met while also working in increments to meet the needs of larger institutions like the Loma Linda VA.
“Smaller clinics will have a demand of 15-20 devices,” says Yoon. “For us, to meet those goals, it helps us have more momentum and collect more. For places like the Loma Linda VA, they had a demand for 500 devices. For larger centers, we split the goals into smaller ones,” she says, like deciding in June that they’d donate 30 devices to Loma Linda in July.
Once Telehealth Access for Seniors makes the donation, it’s up to the individual hospitals to get the devices into their patients’ hands in whatever way makes the most sense for them.
At Linda Loma VA, devices have gone to in-patient users at the hospital to help them stay connected to their friends and family. Next, tablets will be given to out-patient users at their remote clinic in Blythe, CA to connect them with remote health services. The VA’s nurses and social workers — those closest to the patients — identify who could benefit the most from a tablet.
“There’s a certain part of medicine that has to be face-to-face,” says Dr. Jose Acosta, Chief of Staff at Loma Linda VA, “but there are other visits like follow-ups and medication refills that can easily be done through telemedicine.” In addition to sparing patients what can be an hours-long trip in a large state known for its traffic, reducing the need to travel also decreases opportunities for patients to be exposed to COVID-19 as well. By eliminating these barriers, it also keeps patients from missing appointments.
Then, there’s the simple, yet critical, joy of human connection that the tablets allow for. “Sometimes we think all about medicine and treatment and surgery, but I’m convinced that family plays a huge role in how people heal, so I think it’s very important,” Acosta says.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.