After many doctors closed their offices to patient visits earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Maine libraries became critical health care hubs.
The Maine State Library launched a pilot telehealth program with 10 libraries across the state last year in communities with high instances of health issues or a lack of ready access to health care or technology at home. The goal, said Maine State Librarian Jamie Ritter, was to make access to health care more equitable.
“Some people have fewer opportunities to go to a specialist,” said Marijke Visser, director of library development at the Maine State Library.
The state is funding the program with $50,000 from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. The libraries in the Maine Libraries Health Connect Program are in Islesboro, Caribou, Houlton, Fryeburg, Steuben, Paris, Jonesport, Pittsfield, Skowhegan and Dover-Foxcroft.
Use of the private rooms, equipped with a computer, camera, mouse, lights and a headphone, has been spotty depending on the location, Visser said. However, they have been a lifeline to some and highlight the uneven access to broadband and libraries’ changing role in rural Maine.
Skowhegan Free Public Library, located in a town with 8,600 residents, has had higher usage than many of the other pilot locations, and library director Angie Herrick thinks that will continue. She sees libraries, especially in rural areas, becoming lifelines in the transition to telehealth.
“I think a lot of people also are doing telehealth at home if they have the appropriate equipment, but the library has a quiet space and tech help,” Herrick said.
Last year, there were 31 appointments for the telehealth equipment room, and so far this year there have been seven. The library has two staff members trained to help patrons who use the equipment.
The library does not keep records of who used the room to protect the privacy of personal and health information. At the end of each day, any information still on the system is erased by software provided by the Maine State Library.
Fryeburg, with a population of 3,400, has had only four users in sessions lasting about 45 minutes since it started in the pilot about one year ago, Maryann Eastman, director at the Fryeburg Public Library, said.
There may be more library patrons using their own telehealth applications, she said, because most of the library’s wireless users access its network from the parking lot outside.
Evaluation forms filled out by the four users of the private room were constructive, with most saying it made a positive difference for them because they saved money and travel time. The nearest specialist doctors to Fryeburg are more than an hour away in Portland or two hours away in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
In an area where medical care is close at the Paris Public Library near Stephens Memorial Hospital, no people have used the telehealth system. Mike Digman, director of the library located in a town of 5,200 residents, suspects it is because patrons have already made arrangements directly with their doctor.
His wife, who is a licensed clinical social worker, made telehealth appointments with her patients early in the pandemic when her office was closed. Other doctors likely did the same thing, he said.
Telehealth sessions usually are initiated by the health care provider, so getting the word out about library resources broadly to the community is important, Susan Corbett, executive director of the National Digital Equity Center in Wiscasset, said.
“It’s a good project because there are homes where there is no place to have a private conversation with your health care provider,” she said. “Libraries have been digital lifesavers for a very long time.”