Earlier this month, the Mission and Sharon Daley, retired Director of Island Health, were recognized by the Northeast Telehealth Resource Center (NETRC) for being a pioneer in the telehealth field. In 2001, the Mission became the first organization in Maine to implement this emerging technology to provide care to island residents. Prior to this many residents had to travel long distances and sometimes spend days away from home to receive basic medical care.
While relatively commonplace today telehealth was only just beginning more than 20 years ago. In 2001, only half of Americans had internet at their home and video conferencing was still in its infancy. So, Sharon worked hard to recruit both patients and providers, sharing how this new technology could be beneficial for all involved. And it worked, the Sunbeam began making telehealth visits to islands, connecting residents to primary care, specialists, and mental health providers. The boat would visit Frenchboro, Isle au Haut, and Matinicus regularly, docking and connecting to the internet. Patients would board the boat and head to the telemedicine office connecting to mainland providers through a secure internet connection. The Mission also set up and staffed telemedicine offices on Islesford and Swan’s Island allowing residents on those islands to also access telemedicine.
And for years, the Mission was one of the few organizations that provided telemedicine and most patients still went to all their appointments in person. That was until at the tail end of 2019 and precipitated by Covid, telemedicine hit the mainstream. To meet this need, clinicians quickly shifted to telecommunications so all patients could readily access a range of services. Those services include the same services Sunbeam has consistently provided such as tele-consultation, tele-monitoring, and tele-pharmacy.
What emerged now in this post-pandemic age is a new wide-sweeping definition of telehealth which applies to clinical and non-clinical services. Telemedicine includes preventative care, health promotion, education of healthcare professionals, data management, and policy changes around insurance and reimbursement that make services more accessible. And telehealth can be done on any platform from phone to computer.
With the changing face of telehealth, many residents can do their telehealth appointments at home. Though on some islands without reliable internet, islanders will still come to the Sunbeam to have their appointments, and the Mission will continue to serve island residents in a way that continues to meet their needs. Douglas Cornman explains “Simone and I are committed to maintaining the highest standards of healthcare for the residents of Maine’s unbridged outer islands. While we will maintain some aspects of island healthcare, we are excited to explore new ways of offering services to islanders, integrating telehealth where it makes the most sense. I look forward to continuing to help communities to be as healthy as they can be.”
Some of the things that Douglas and Simone are working on is bringing providers and services to islands on the Sunbeam, specifically ones islanders cannot access as easily through telehealth like dentists. Island residents also want to know more about the services available to them and earlier this year the Sunbeam held an in-person community health fair with organizations and providers on Isle au Haut. This fall and winter, Simone and Margaret Snell, Island Services Program Coordinator, have set up a series of virtual talks for residents of all outer islands.