Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, many have been struggling to find ways to help those being impacted by the illness or on the frontlines. Especially as city leaders continue to ask their citizens to stay home to slow the spread of the virus.
Public Health Advocates and community volunteers have been quick to adapt and establish ways for those stuck at home to offer a helping hand to those who need it most. They have come up with clever ways to take initiative while social distancing.
In the face of the growing crisis, a group of high school and college students were quick to act. This group included, Aakshi Agarwal, Hannah Verma, and Siddharth Jain–three Yale Undergrads–and Arjun Verma, a rising junior in high school. They partnered up to found Telehealth Access for Seniors, a non-profit that provides electronic devices to Senior Citizens and other vulnerable populations.
This way, they can connect with their physicians via Telehealth, rather than put their lives and others’ at risk by seeking out in-person care.
We caught up with the founding team of Telehealth Access for Seniors to learn more about their organization’s origins. Also learning how it is impacting the people who need it most and what it means for them to serve vulnerable populations while also juggling the responsibilities of a typical 17-21-year-old student.
Issa: Where did the idea for Telehealth Access for Seniors come from? Did you all struggle a bit before settling on its current state and structure?
Aakshi: The idea from TeleHealth Access for Seniors originated when Hannah and Arjun overheard their parents, who are physicians, worrying about how their patients with chronic conditions would make it through the pandemic using TeleMedicine when they only had a flip phone. Arjun had this great idea to connect them to some of his old devices and then Hannah realized we could do this at a larger scale.
Hannah asked me about expanding it in Connecticut, where I am, because we were close friends and both interested in healthcare. I am heavily involved in education and came up with bringing in educational resources like guides and tech-support. We combined all of our ideas to make TeleHealth Access for Seniors.
I also brought in the idea to focus on donating to Veterans Hospitals because of my experience working with veterans at my Congresswoman’s office as an intern. We definitely played around with a lot of structures for how to keep in touch with so many volunteers.
For example, when we were smaller, we had 2 volunteer coordinators and us 3 co-founders calling every state’s volunteers to check-in with them. As we grew, it became unsustainable. Now, we have state leads doing check-ins. Like this, we have had to make a lot of adjustments!
Issa: Can you walk me through the donation and distribution process? What type of instructions and/or support does TAFS offer to recipients of devices?
Arjun: If someone would like to donate a device, they can fill out the form on our website. Every donor should try to reset, sanitize, and upgrade the device to the best of their ability. Volunteers in their region are notified, and they will coordinate shipping or a pick-up with the donor. Once the volunteers have received the device, they then check to make sure that the device has been properly reset, sanitized, and upgraded.
Volunteers then package each device with a charger and instructional guides before distributing it to the practice. These guides provide step-by-step instructions on how to set up a phone, email, and video conferencing apps, along with tips on looking for symptoms of COVID-19 and how to have good financial practices.
Because of patient privacy laws, it is the medical practice that identifies and then distributes each device to patients in need. If the patient has any questions, we also provide them with a tech support number to call where we have volunteers ready to answer questions at any time!
Issa: You all are college students, and I noticed that the majority of those who are on the Telehealth Access for Senior team or volunteer for your organization are also students. What has been your experience with creating and running a non-profit while also juggling classwork, clubs, jobs, and family commitments, especially with the added pressure of handling everything during a pandemic?
Arjun: While we have been running this organization, our administrators along with our volunteers have all been balancing studying for a variety of standardized tests, working on schoolwork, and spending time with our families while also putting all of our efforts into this organization.
We all have our individual tasks of organizing meetings, coordinating volunteer drop-offs, keeping records of donations along with actually soliciting devices. Our volunteers are all dedicated and hard-working, so all of them have still been able to help immensely in our goal of helping every senior and veteran get access to healthcare. Despite the struggles, it’s still been an extremely rewarding experience.
Issa: You all put emphasis on being socially-conscious and have expanded to support low-income communities as part of your initiative. How and why did you all decide to shift the initiative to focus on supporting multiple disadvantaged communities, rather than just Seniors with limited electronic access?
Aakshi: All of us definitely have a passion for healthcare in different ways and have had varied experiences of our own with healthcare access whether it be personally or through family members. Those experiences really informed us to want to serve those in underserved communities from a young age, so we began this organization with a focus on helping those who were most at risk and most at need.
This began with the name focus on Senior Citizens because the pandemic definitely highlighted a need to help seniors given how much they are affected by the coronavirus. As the pandemic worsened, our definition of who was most at risk and had the most need grew.
For example, we recognized an early focus for helping veterans as they tend to be lower-income and statistically have used TeleMedicine less.
Issa: What’s in store for Telehealth Access for Seniors? The future of the pandemic is unknown, so I imagine its course may impact any developments you all are working on, but do you think that there will still be a demand for electronic access in the time after COVID-19? In what way do you see TAFS adapting to address similar, but unrelated, electronic-access issues?
Hannah: As we’ve heard from many providers, Telehealth appointments are the future of medicine. For routine check-ups, they save a lot of time and resources on both ends. The healthcare industry has long been trying to shift to a virtual model, but there was a lot of hesitancy to make that change.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that telehealth is not just a short-term substitute, but rather a long term solution.
We know that there will be high demand and use of these devices for appointments in the future, but cost barriers and age barriers will continue to be an issue for tech literacy for the patient populations we are focused on helping, like veterans and seniors.
We hope to continue addressing this for years to come, perhaps through large scale device recycling programs to repurpose them for patients in need. We are mainly focused on health as our mission, but we are also addressing wellness and connectivity through our guides, and we hope to branch out more to advocacy as well.
Issa: Is there anything you haven’t had the opportunity to share that you would like to?
Hannah: We are constantly looking for more donations! Even a $5 contribution to our GoFundMe allows us to buy chargers. If you work at a larger organization, we’d appreciate your spreading the word amongst your team to potentially have a company contribution.