In Houston, all of my colleague’s offices are closed, and there is limited access to the Texas Medical Center due to Hurricane Harvey. As a virtual medical doctor, there was only one thought on my mind this entire weekend, “How can I help?”

As a Floridian, I have certainly faced my share of natural disasters beginning with Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 hurricane in 1992. Living through Hurricane Andrew gave me false sense of calm when it came to natural disaster prior to Hurricane Katrina. My idea of hurricanes was limited to power outages and exploring the debris of the aftermath as a child.

Then many years later when Katrina hit, I was tucked away in Philadelphia at Temple University School of Medicine. Hurricane Katrina really opened my eyes to the potential devastation of a major storm. Even so, it seemed very unlikely anything so catastrophic would ever hit close to home.

When I first heard Hurricane Harvey was headed to Houston, I had very little concern about the impact. Less than 48 hours after landfall I have witnessed the devastation of the storm, and I am once again reminded mother nature should never be underestimated. I have colleagues who are stranded in their homes and once again many have died by trying to commute during the storm.

As a physician, my biggest fear is for those who may be stranded in their homes without access to a medical facility due to the deadly flood. Thankfully due to modern technology for those who have electricity and a charged device my colleagues and I are able to provide urgent medical advice online through telemedicine during the days ahead. One may wonder, “How can we help?”

Here are 5 situations where a virtual doctor can be of assistance during a disaster.

Pregnancy complications and labor. We all know there is no rhyme or reason to when babies decide to make their entry into the world. Most medical professionals who have worked in labor and delivery will tell you once the baby is ready to come there is no stopping the progress. If someone suspects they are in labor or having a pregnancy complication a virtual consultation can definitely help determine if the situation is emergent enough to require transport to the hospital. If the patient is actually in labor having a healthcare professional online to visually walk through a delivery in the case of an emergency would also be invaluable.

Chest pain. Although normally we would defer chest pain visits to the urgent care or ER during a storm this is an excellent case for a virtual consultation. Yesterday I was informed someone died in their home after experiencing chest pain during the storm. This person had a heat attack after being unable to seek care. Although a virtual consultation may not have been adequate for intervention a virtual doctor could definitely assess and determine an emergent medical condition through a virtual visit and hopefully arrange emergent transport. Even a small intervention like advising the patient to take aspirin can make a big difference.

Cuts and bruises. In dire situations requiring evacuations, it would not be unusual for someone to be cut or bruised during the storm. Some cuts and bruises are minor and can be treated from home with topical ointments. Others require further care or can result in serious complications like a blood infection or loss of a limb. A virtual consultation can help assess a wound and vaccination status to advise appropriate care. Sometimes making early interventions such as cleaning the wound appropriately and avoiding further contamination can make a big difference. We can also help determine if oral antibiotics will be needed and prescribe medications if necessary. Although you may not be able to reach a medical center, a pharmacy may be within your reach, and a virtual consult can get you the prescription you need.

High blood pressure and diabetes. Although high blood pressure and diabetes are chronic medical conditions best managed by your primary care physician the fact is most doctors will not be able to get to their offices tomorrow. In the short term, a virtual doctor can help manage your diabetes and blood pressure especially if you are out of medication and there is a pharmacy nearby. Even in a situation where medication is readily available if you are unable to eat normally due to the storm your blood sugars and blood pressures may be affected. A virtual doctor can also help you adjust your existing medications as needed. Medical advice and medication management can help prevent a stroke or other deadly disease complications like diabetic ketoacidosis.

Anxiety and shortness of breath. The effects of being trapped during a storm especially when loved ones are affected can take a toll on your mental well being. Sometimes the signs of anxiety can be mistaken for asthma or a heart attack. Virtual doctors can assess, manage and help you through this very difficult time with advice on whether you are experiencing a true medical emergency or the effects of stress on your mental state.

Whether in a storm or any other time virtual doctors are ready willing and able to diagnose, treat and manage non-emergent medical issues from the comfort of your home. As we are all impacted by the effects of Hurricane Harvey our doctors, pharmacists and other medical professionals are honored to be amongst Houston’s first responders during a critical time of need.

Written by Latisha Rowe, a family physician and founder, Rowe Doctors.
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