A “trucker by trade with Philly roots,” Mark Roberto was initially leery of the new, high-tech telemedicine kiosk in the private examination room of the sprawling Hope Rescue Mission, a place of refuge for unsheltered men in Berks County, Pennsylvania, that offers programs assisting with the transition back into the community as productive and independent individuals.
Known as “Cowboy” to the unsheltered men who call the downtown shelter home – by virtue of his signature Western hat seldom seen in this southeastern Pennsylvania town – Roberto changed his mind after he familiarized himself with the easy-to-use diagnostic equipment.
Funded by a grant from the FirstEnergy Foundation, the new telemedicine equipment will allow about 25 Hope Rescue Mission residents to schedule virtual visits with Tower Health Medical Group Street Medicine doctors and nurses each week. Patients can use the blood pressure monitor, thermometer, stethoscope and ear and throat scopes with cameras to send vital statistics to health professionals on the other side of a flat screen display in real time as if they were in the room.
Being unsheltered is hazardous to one’s health, and many patients suffer from chronic diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and psychiatric conditions. Festering, untreated wounds can literally put lives and limbs at risk. Individuals who received treatment in prison for chronic medical and psychiatric conditions are at particularly high risk. After being released, they often have no job, no health insurance, no doctor and nowhere to go, winding up in shelters like the Hope Rescue Mission.
Dr. Anthony Donato, a physician at the Reading Hospital, said many unsheltered men in the area are in their fifties but appear to be in their seventies due to the many maladies they suffer. He regularly visits city streets and shelters with the hospital’s Street Medicine Team to provide primary and preventive medical care to an unsheltered population numbering in the thousands.
“To get healthcare in 2021, you need a phone. You need transportation. And you need good language skills,” said Dr. Donato. “Our unsheltered population doesn’t always have these things.”
Dr. Donato said it can take a month or more to schedule an in-person follow-up visit for an unsheltered patient with a primary care physician to check how they are feeling and responding to treatment and new medications. He hopes the new telemedicine kiosks can reduce barriers to timely health care.
“We are pleased to provide a $100,000 grant through the FirstEnergy Foundation’s ‘Investing with Purpose’ initiative to help fund this critical resource to meet the health and wellness needs of this underserved population,” said Lorna Wisham, president of The FirstEnergy Foundation. “This program is a precise fit for ‘Investing with Purpose,’ which supports organizations that advance health and safety, workforce development, educational and social justice initiatives.”
The Foundation grant will also be used to purchase several additional telemedicine kiosks to locate in other facilities that serve Reading’s unsheltered. The kiosks will be important tools that will provide screenings and assessments, helping to decrease costly emergency room visits or hospital readmissions.
“The Street Medicine Team has helped me with eye care, orthopedics and medications,” Roberto said. “They helped me at my lowest points. It’s been a life-changing experience for me. Now I encourage all the residents to get the health care they need.”