Q&A with Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians, Soumit Pendharkar

Soumit Pendharkar, MHA, FACHE, health administrator for Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians, talks about the difficulties around the pandemic, lessons learned, and how telehealth is improving healthcare access and outcomes. 

Question: During the pandemic there’s been conversations about the limited resources available to many tribes around the country, what’s your reaction to this?

Soumit Pendharkar: Historically speaking, tribes have been underfunded for healthcare. The pandemic has exposed and in many ways has exacerbated this fact. Specifically, we see a lack of funding for healthcare staffing, facilities, equipment, transportation, which are all areas that had to be upgraded significantly to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

Q: What has your organization/community experienced during the pandemic?

SP: Our experience with COVID-19 cases has been favorable on many metrics compared to county and state trends. Most of this is due to the fact that we, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB), took strong steps in the beginning of the pandemic to protect our community. We implemented progressive policies through out, invested in technology, tested aggressively, and are now focused on rolling out vaccinations.

Q: Why did you feel having a telehealth strategy was important for your members?

SP: In the context of the current pandemic, we wanted to offer an option where our tribal members could receive care from the safety of their homes and in a way that was convenient to their schedules and locations. Additionally, our telehealth platform sets us up to be able to deliver next generation medicine and empowers our tribal members to take charge of their health. Telehealth has changed the practice of medicine permanently; there is no going back and it’s important to us that our tribal members are able to access the highest quality care as the industry evolves.

Q: Tell us more about the telehealth experience you are providing?

SP: For the time being, our telehealth program connects patients to urgent care providers 24/7/365 and primary care providers. In the future, we have plans to expand our telehealth platform to offer specialty care options such as nutrition. We’ll also be incorporating smart tools that tribal members can use to monitor their health at home and incorporate into their telehealth visit. Part of goals with telehealth is to empower the wellbeing of our present and future members, and the ability for telehealth to help patients take greater control of their own health will play a big role in helping us do this while also enabling healthier populations.

Q: What lessons learned or advice would you have for other tribes looking to improve healthcare access and outcomes?

SP: In order to improve access and outcomes, we have to think differently and take action. As I explained, tribes have historically been underfunded for healthcare. It’s important, especially for groups like us to take action and find ways to improve care for our members. Telehealth offers one pathway to for us to deliver greater access to care in a cost-effective way. With telehealth we can not only offer our members next-generation care but also an experience that is patient friendly.

Q: How can telehealth help mitigate disparities in care that exist and create a more equal care experience for all demographics and populations?

SP: Telehealth is an important tool for helping us break down the barriers to care that have historically existed. In our case, having a telehealth option allows eligible tribal members to obtain care within minutes. Care will no longer be dependent on whether or not one can drive to their appointment or being able to take time away from work or pulling the kids out of school – that’s a really important aspect for many of our members. At a higher-level telehealth can be used as a way to help level the playing field by allowing patients in areas where they may have to travel long distances to access care, especially for certain specialties, to still be able to access care.



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