The Pope, Philly and patient care: How Jefferson Health is preparing for the papal visit

In anticipation of Pope Francis' impending arrival, the city of Philadelphia, hospitals included, is moving heaven and earth to accommodate his safety and well-being when he comes to town.

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Philly on Sept. 26 and 27 to join the World Meeting of Families, the world's largest Catholic gathering of families that is held every three years. This trip marks Pope Francis' first visit to the U.S. since becoming the head of the Catholic Church.

An expected 1.5 million visitors will travel to Philadelphia to see the pope. The city is undergoing extensive preparations for the pope's visit, including closing down major highways and the Delaware River-spanning Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Additionally, the city is closing off a 4.7-square-mile area that will be closed to inbound traffic, according to a Philly.com report.

Six hospitals lie within that traffic box, according to the report: Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Pennsylvania Hospital, Hahnemann University Hospital and Jefferson University Hospital.

With these six major hospitals shut off to traffic, it begs the question of how they will continue to provide care as patients — and employees — are unable to get to the hospitals or leave them.

"The biggest obstacle is people can't get into or out of the area that's walled off, the security zone," says Judd Hollander, MD, associate dean for strategic health initiatives at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. "The security zone for the visit happens to include most of the healthcare centers in the city of Philadelphia."

As far as patient care goes, there are concerns regarding patients who need to get to the hospital.

"Probably the most worrisome thing is what happens to people who get sick who now can't get to any of these hospitals," says Dr. Hollander, citing examples like patients with chronic illnesses, pregnant women and patients with new injuries that can't access healthcare services.

However, other concerns include patients who are ready to leave the hospital. And, how do employees get to and from work?

Jefferson University Hospital is using this as an opportunity to launch its telemedicine service JeffConnect to the broader public. At the end of June, the system launched JeffConnect for employees. In light of the pope's visit, the hospital decided to extend the services during the papal visit to anybody in Philadelphia.

JeffConnect's licensed physicians are in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, so individuals who are physically in any of those three states can use JeffConnect to access care if needed. Patients using the JeffConnect app can see which emergency medicine physicians are available, undergo a video consultation and then determine the best course of action, whether that be a simple at-home remedy or a visit to a nearby urgent care center.

Dr. Hollander says the hospital felt an obligation to extend care services through JeffConnect. If people need healthcare services, they should be able to receive them, regardless of the pope's presence.

"Hearing and being peripherally involved in the pope's visit and the logistical hurdles we had, it became clear to me that we had an obligation," Dr. Hollander says. "People don't need to fight through walls to get to see their provider….We have an ethical obligation to provide care to the patients who want to seek care during this time frame."

So far, the technology has worked well for Jefferson employees, Dr. Hollander says, but in anticipation of the million plus visitors, the hospital is tweaking the offerings slightly. For example, telehealth consultations are generally provided by a physician on site at the hospital, but since the population density of Philadelphia is expected to skyrocket during the pope's visit, concerns about cellular signals and Internet connectivity arise. So, the hospital set up a provider who will be available for telemedicine consults located remotely from the hospital and is unlikely to be affected by connectivity issues. "We're really thinking through the logistics of this."

In addition to increasing access to care through telemedicine, Jefferson University Hospital is also modifying other processes. For example, surgical volume will be down, the hospital cut down on appointments for those two days, increased staffing, extended urgent care center hours and asked for volunteers to spend extra hours in the hospital.

The other hospitals in the traffic box are also making similar adjustments, according to the Philly.com report. And, Temple University Hospital, which is outside of the blocked-off zone, is expected to absorb some of the overflow and patients unable to access the six within the zone.

Even once the pope leaves Philadelphia and life resumes as normal, Jefferson plans to continue offering JeffConnect as another way for patients to receive care. "We are wholeheartedly committed as part of our major growth strategy to provide care to patients when and where they want it, and how they want it," Dr. Hollander says.

Although hospital processes and patient care will be slightly modified during the pope's visit, Dr. Hollander says this is a once in a lifetime event, and it's exciting to see the city reacting and preparing. "You get to see the city gear up and [feel] all the hype around it," Dr. Hollander says. "I think it's going to be really inspiring for a lot of people who follow the pope, and even for those from a different religion….He does neat stuff. As a person, you have to be totally in awe of him."

More articles on telehealth:

Providers confused by varying telehealth defintions, policies: 14 findings
Opinion: Many ER visits could be replaced with telemedicine consultation
American Well to launch telehealth 'exchanges' to search for physicians

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