Keeping FQHC Doors Open: Strategies for Operating During COVID-19 with Zufall Health Center

While COVID-19 continues to spread, many of the learnings gleaned from the last few months, such as telemedicine, can help healthcare providers continue to stay safe and keep their doors open. Staying open and accessible is especially important for federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), which provide care to underserved populations and often see many patients who are also on the front lines as essential workers. 

We recently sat down with Fran Palm, Chief Operating Officer at Zufall Health Center in New Jersey, to chat about some of the key strategies she has employed to continue ensuring safe delivery of care at its clinics. 

“…now that we’ve flipped telemedicine out of the box, it’s not going back in.”

Fran Palm, COO, Zufall Health Center

Here’s here advice for providers: 

1. Telemedicine is here to stay.

At the beginning of the pandemic, telehealth was the only way many clinics could continue to see patients while doors were closed to in-person visits. 

Now four months later, as providers have adapted to the new normal, televisits continue to be a key part of a clinic’s care delivery system. For Zufall, telemedicine has been crucial on a several fronts: 

Seeing new patients. Zufall has not stopped accepting new patients throughout the course of the pandemic. New patients are seen virtually, first.  If more serious care is required, an in-person appointment is scheduled. Working to have fewer people coming through the doors helps to minimize risk of virus spread. 

Serving patients who have limited access to transportation. Since Zufall focuses on delivering care to the underserved and un/underinsured, many of its patients may lack the means of transportation required to access care in person. And, with coronavirus, patients simply don’t feel safe using public transportation. As a result, telemedicine has proved to be especially useful for engaging with patients who would otherwise miss receiving care. 

Delivering mental health support. Behavioral healthcare is part of the comprehensive services offered at Zufall, and telemedicine has been an extremely effective channel for its delivery. Not only has Zufall been able to continue providing behavioral healthcare remotely, it also has successfully set up virtual bereavement groups to support patients who have lost family members to COVID-19. 

2. Support patients with video content.

In the same vein of providing direct care over video, Zufall has also been supporting patients along their care journey with video content. The FQHC has recorded and sent patients videos ranging from instructions for in-person visits, to messages for why care cannot be further delayed, to why patients need to stay up to date on vaccinations. 

“Video content helps to put a personal touch back into the delivery of care, giving a face to providers who are otherwise fully masked up and protected by PPE when a patient comes into the clinic,” said Palm.  

“Video content helps to put a personal touch back into the delivery of care, giving a face to providers who are otherwise fully masked up and protected by PPE when a patient comes into the clinic.”

Fran Palm, COO, Zufall Health Center

3. Take your care outdoors.

With the risk of coronavirus spread increasing in confined spaces, Zufall has elected to take some of its services outdoors. First, all of its COVID-19 testing is done outside. Patients who are scheduled for a test will be instructed to arrive at the back of the building as a staff member steps out to perform the test. This prevents anyone who is potentially ill from spreading the virus inside the clinic. 

Zufall has also elected to take immunizations outdoors. Countless patients have opted to delay or skip immunizations since lockdown measures were imposed.  Now that clinic doors have reopened, it is essential for patients — especially pediatric patients — to get caught up on their vaccines to protect against the vulnerabilities of other infectious diseases. 

By thinking outside the box and hosting health fairs at local parks, Zufall has been able to provide preventive care outdoors, ensuring many patients can be served at once while giving them a large area to remain socially distanced from others as they wait to be seen. 

If you’re looking to improve your telehealth offering, this on-demand webinar shares some best practices.

4. Minimize contact indoors.

While Zufall’s doors have reopened, nothing about its check-in and patient intake processes have returned to normal. As Palm mentions in this article on reopening with Patient EngagementHIT, Zufall has gone to great lengths to ensure that person-to-person contact in the clinic is kept to a minimum with a focus on ensuring social distancing measures can be respected. 

For now, walk-in appointments are paused to reduce in-office capacity.  Zufall also has removed many of the chairs from its waiting rooms to keep large groups of patients from being able to congregate in common areas. Patient registrations are now taken via phone and much of the intake process handled remotely to keep the check-in process as brief and efficient as possible. 

Low-touch protocols are not only for safety, they also help build trust between patients and providers when patients see the new ways providers are innovating to minimize COVID-19 exposure risks.

Although COVID-19 continues to present challenges, patients need to be seen and care must be delivered. From low-contact check-in processes, to telemedicine, to delivering care outdoors, there are many of Zufall’s protocols and strategies that can help keep doors open to patients but closed to coronavirus. 

What processes have you put in place at your practice to adapt to the new normal? We’d love to hear from you and connect on how we can work together to make the delivery of care safer for everyone. 

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