Lia Rubel, of Barre, is on a mission: Provide smartphones and other WiFi capable devices to seniors who can’t afford them but need them now during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet with their doctors.
Rubel has collected 30 devices and is hoping to secure at least 70 more.
Rubel, a 2019 graduate of Spaulding High School and a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, is the Vermont representative to the nonprofit group TeleHealth Access for Seniors which began in March with the goal of collecting smart devices and cash donations to provide elderly patients and veterans with access to healthcare services via video chat and to sustain the patient-doctor relationship during the pandemic.
“Given COVID-19, most medical practices have switched to a telehealth model where doctors connect with patients via video chat. However, many elderly patients lack the camera-enabled devices necessary to attend these appointments. Essentially, what we do is collect old smartphones, tablets and laptops and we donate them to elderly patients so they can remotely connect with their doctors. What this does is allow elderly patients to stay at home and avoid the risk of COVID-19 infection,” she said.
To get the world out she is using social media and other public platforms and has met with three Rotary clubs in Vermont. “What we’re looking for are camera enabled devices with a touch screen,” Rubel said.
The devices are distributed through health partners. Rubel is working with the VA Hospital in White River Junction, which received 26 units on Tuesday, and is planning to contact other health providers.
“It’s an invaluable service for us. We have patients from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts border and some of them simply can’t make it here,” said Karen Campbell, chief of volunteer services at the hospital.
Rubel learned about TeleHealth Access for Seniors from her friend Hannah Verma, one of the cofounders of the group.
Verma, a Yale senior, started three organizations with fellow Yale students Tiffany Wong and Aakshi Agarwal and with her brother, Arjun, a student at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Florida. The two siblings came up with the idea after talking to their parents, both physicians, about the challenges of treating patients through telehealth.
The two opened a GoFundMe account based in Oakland, Florida and have expanded their operation to 26 states including Vermont. So far the group has donated 700 devices through 55 partners and raised $16,000 to buy new equipment.
Along with video telehealth appointments with medical professionals, the devices can be used to connect with family and friends and is especially useful for residents in nursing homes who cannot receive visitors, Rubel said.
TeleHealth Access does not pay for WiFi but does provide a list of WiFi hot spots. In addition, the group provides printed guides in multiple languages explaining how to use the devices and has volunteers available to offering technical support via phone and email.
When Rubel receives a donated device she makes sure not only is the device working and WiFi capable but also that there is no personal information on the phone. If there is she wipes it clean to protect the donors.
Anyone interesting in donating a device or giving a cash donation can visit telehealthforseniors.org. Devices must have a camera and be able to connect with WiFi.
TeleHealth Access for Seniors is working in partnership with Benefit Books a 501(3) nonprofit organization. TeleHealth expects to receive 501(3) nonprofit status soon but in the meantime is working through Benefit Books as its fiscal sponsor.
“If you have a smart device you aren’t using this is a simple and effective way to help out during this pandemic,” Rubel said.