UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, one of the nation’s top hospitals for pediatric organ transplantation, faced unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.  UPMC’s reputation for superior transplant surgery success and rehabilitative care makes it a preferred hospital destination for patients throughout the world. Lockdowns and travel restrictions prevented patients, who are highly immunocompromised, from receiving the in-person care they needed pre- and post-transplant.  This was particularly problematic for patients who were physically located in areas remote from UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. For those patients waiting for organ transplantation as well as those recovering from surgery, the inability to see their physicians and other clinical personnel represented a critical situation.

Receiving FCC funding to expand telehealth

In April 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced $200 million COVID-19 funding for devices and connectivity to expand access to telehealth. This funding provided UPMC with an excellent opportunity to use telehealth to deliver the care its pediatric patients required. Pre-transplant patients require close monitoring and are subject to regular wellness assessments to determine their fitness to undergo transplant surgery. Post-transplant rehabilitative care is intensive and requires frequent visits, occurring as often as one to two times a week. In both cases, a telehealth alternative to in-person care was needed but it became clear that many patients lacked the adequate devices and connectivity to use telehealth.

UPMC turned to Sano Health, a provider of devices and connectivity for telehealth, with expertise in working with the FCC. Sano knew that the application window would be tight and worked diligently with UPMC to make sure the application was submitted within one hour of the window opening. UPMC was one of the first applicants approved and was awarded $192,500.

Developing the solution

Sano worked closely with UPMC’s highly regarded team to customize the telehealth devices for the patients’ needs. The devices provided essential utilities for their patients. For example, remote patients required collaboration between their local physician offices and UPMC to enforce the pre-surgery monitoring standards.  Equipping the patients (and their families) with a telehealth-ready device facilitated these interactions.  As a further example, some patients needed as many as 40 medications after their surgery. Rather than send them home with a 14-page document, the medication information was loaded on the telehealth devices. Moreover, this information was updated remotely if a change in medication was needed.  All devices deployed by Sano Health were pre-configured with all the apps and web information patients needed pre-and post-surgery and were restricted to the use approved by UPMC. Given that the devices were restricted to medical use, communities who would otherwise forbid technology use, such as the Amish and Mennonites, have accepted Sano’s devices to provide care to their residents.

The outcome – saving lives

A patient who was on the waiting list for an organ became inactive due to his inability to come in-person for required appointments. The patient received a Sano device, which enabled UPMC to work with the patient and his local physician via telehealth, resulting in the patient being reactivated on the transplant waiting list.

Another young patient received a device before being discharged after receiving a liver transplant. Residing in a socially challenged area of Alabama and with no Internet connectivity, the patient and his family were feeling overwhelmed and nervous about returning home. Having the Sano telehealth device reassured the family that the patient would receive the care he needed from the UPMC team remotely.

Telehealth is here to stay

Given the significant benefits for the young transplant patients, UPMC has formed a committee to explore the use telehealth as part of its standard operating procedures going forward. Many of UPMC’s patients are in states that are distant from Pittsburgh, making telehealth essential for providing pre- and post-surgery care.

“The customer service provided by Sano Health during the process has been great. Anything we’ve asked for has been done with ease. It was a lot of work rolling it out, but the reward was worth it. Sano Health shares our belief that even if we just made a difference in one person’s life, that’s what it’s all about.”

Dawn Wilkerson, MSN, UPMC Children’s Hospital ofPittsburgh, Transplant Clinical Director