Telehealth & “Telemental Health” for Patients with Vision Loss

As a major provider of mental health and healthcare service to people with low vision and blindness, Lighthouse Guild swiftly engaged with the need to go virtual in the provision of services, says Edward Ross, LCSW, BCD, Director of Lighthouse Guild’s Behavioral Health and Health Center.

Edward Ross

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the organization served over 500 patients, many of whom came in each week to Lighthouse Guild at 64th Street and West End Avenue. Now, says Ross, additional patients have been using their services because they are experiencing stress with an added sense of isolation. But telemedicine makes consulting with a clinician easier. Ross says Lighthouse Guild’s response is a similar transition to telehealth among other health and mental health providers throughout the state.

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Lighthouse Guild’s services are focused on the needs of patients with vision loss. But, of course, there are many coexisting conditions such as depression. Behavioral health services including psychotherapy and psychiatry are a large component of the organization’s services.

“We’re the leading organization in the country that provides specialized mental healthcare for people with vision loss,” says Ross. He adds that many patients have both low vision as well as anxiety and other emotional issues related to their disability. With a team of psychologists, specialized clinical social workers and three part-time psychiatrists on board, patients are treated for conditions that include anxiety, depression and any other form of mental illness.

Before the current health crisis, many patients came to participate in group meetings with a mental health professional or met with a clinician for psychotherapy once a week at the West End Avenue offices, as well as monthly psychiatric visits. Having multiple services in one location is convenient, particularly for those with vision problems which make traveling to an appointment a challenge.

Lighthouse Guild’s services go beyond vision and mental health services. Occupational and physical therapy are also necessary and important aspects of the organization’s services, since a primary goal is providing training to adjust to vision loss to sustain independence in daily activities like cooking, cleaning, dressing and work. Ross further explained that because diabetes and eye problems are frequently linked, the Health Center also includes endocrinology and diabetes management, in addition to nutrition services. Similarly, because diabetes can cause foot wounds that fail to heal, Lighthouse Guild provides podiatry services.

For endocrinology and primary care, telehealth counseling is being provided to patients by Lighthouse Guild physicians. While not providing tests to screen for COVID-19, primary care physicians are advising patients on taking proactive protective measures and answering questions about symptoms and when to go to an ER, as well as ensuring that general healthcare needs are addressed, including medication needs and refills.

With the temporary lockdown in NYC and around the world, healthcare providers needed to look to technology for solutions to treat their patients. Ross says the transition may have been easier for some staff and patients because of their familiarity with electronic media. However, the rest of the staff and most patients recognized the critical need for distancing and have embraced the use of virtual meeting platforms such as GoToMeeting, Zoom, and FaceTime.

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Even during the first week, when it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic could extend well into the future, the staff at Lighthouse Guild were already reaching out to patients over the phone to offer reassurance, counseling and continuing their mental health treatment. By incorporating virtual meeting programs and other technologies, Lighthouse Guild providers can now conduct telemental health services from their homes, with full, secure access to their patient’s records, promoting safety for staff as well as patients.

Ross anticipates that the use of virtual technology is likely to transform the way patients are served in the future. In general, he says, “I’m very proud of my staff. They’ve really risen to the occasion.”

If you or someone you know is blind or visually impaired you can access telehealth services and other Lighthouse Guild services by calling 1-800-284-4422, or visit their website at www.lighthouseguild.org.

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