Michelle’s Corner: Being Connected

If there is ONE thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus for all of us, it’s that being isolated from friends and family is mentally exhausting. While each of us have a different comfort level with being alone—perhaps we identify as an introvert, or we prefer to work in silence, or are simply comfortable being by ourselves—the need for at least some human contact is instinctive and healthy.

Our new normal of social distancing, and staying at home to keep ourselves and others safe from this frightening illness, has many ripple effects through our lives. Children have lost contact with friends from school, workers can’t chat around the water cooler about what happened over the weekend, grandparents can’t hug grandchildren. Some of these relationships we took for granted and, now that they’re gone, we realize how important they are in our day to day lives.

We’ve turned to technology to keep those relationships alive in some form or fashion. I know I’m on teleconference calls with “Brady Bunch” screens for hours a day with coworkers or community partners, but I’d prefer that to email chains. Not that emails aren’t a valid form of communication, but I need to see faces and read expressions as much as words, hear voices and read tones as much as read capitalizations to get emotions. I need to feel CONNECTED.

Technology has become vital to that human need for connection, and many necessary medical services have turned to telehealth to provide everything from diagnosis for an illness to mental health treatments. Patients and medical professionals are able to stay physically safe while being able to communicate and deal with problems before they grow into something that requires a visit to the ER.

ShelterCare has been able to quickly pivot to telehealth as a tool to get therapy, skills training and case management to our consumers who have needs even if there is a pandemic going on. Our partners, such as Trillium and PacificSource, have been with us as we have found innovative ways to reach those who need us most safely. They’ve been quick to find solutions to unexpected barriers to telehealth, such as PacificSource providing solar chargers for our unhoused clients who have nowhere to recharge their phones. Oregon Health Authority has relaxed Medicaid rules around telehealth to make this form of care more accessible to vulnerable populations.

Still, access to healthcare is becoming synonymous with access to technology which highlights yet another reason why poverty creates medical inequities. A person may have insurance through Medicaid, but still no healthcare without a phone, wifi, a data plan with enough minutes for a therapy session, a way to plug in a cellphone, or a place to talk privately with a healthcare provider. A visit to the ER, hospital stay, or even jail may have been avoided completely if the patient had been able to get help via a telephone prior to the mental health crisis.

Without access to technology, a person is not only physically isolated but MENTALLY isolated from any form of support be it through telehealth or just talking to a friend. Without access to technology, there is no social media, no education, no way to safely order goods online, an no CONNECTION to the world.

The pandemic won’t last forever, but what lessons will we have learned that we must take with us? Technology as a connector is certainly one of them. Access to technology is something that we will have to address as we look at the inequities that face the members of our community. I look forward to working with businesses, nonprofits and other agencies in looking for solutions.

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