Dr. Melanie Murray
The WelTel program is making it easier for doctors to connect with their HIV/AIDS patients to provide continuous encouragement and care.
BC Women’s Oak Tree Clinic is putting a fresh spin on making “house calls.” Where a house call used to involve visiting patients in their homes, Dr. Melanie Murray and her colleagues now “call on” their most vulnerable patients using regular texts and phone calls. It’s all part of WelTel, a BC Women’s pilot project and UBC grant study funded by Gilead Sciences and Bristol- Myers Squibb aimed at enhancing medication adherence and overall healthcare for women and families living with HIV/AIDS.
Staying the course
“Problems with treating HIV and AIDS often centre around people’s engagement in their own care and our ability to contact them,” says Murray, an infectious diseases specialist in HIV care at Oak Tree Clinic. “There are patients out there who feel completely alone, so just having someone text them once a week and ask, ‘How are you?’ can be enough to make them feel connected.”
“There are patients out there who feel completely alone, so just having someone text them once a week and ask, ‘How are you?’ can be enough to make them feel connected.”
Overcoming the stigma
Today’s treatments for HIV are very successful when patients practise good adherence to their medications. Unfortunately, for many patients, the stigma and stress of living with HIV can derail taking daily meds. To help address this problem, part of the WelTel program involves sending out regular texts to support patients between appointments.
“People will often avoid coming to their appointments if they’re ashamed or embarrassed because they’re not taking their medications,” says Murray. “The WelTel program is a kind of string we can use to pull them back in and to make them feel that somebody cares.”
Patients taking part in the first phase of the WelTel program receive regular Monday morning text messages to check in and see how they are doing. A researcher monitors the responses, and then relays any potential problems to medical professionals who then contact patients directly.
“Checking in with patients on a regular basis provides an opportunity for them to let us know if they’re having problems,” observes Dr. Deborah Money, VP Research at BC Women’s. “The sooner we know patients are struggling, the sooner we can apply solutions to help prevent any serious complications from progressing.”
Money adds that the WelTel approach to patient engagement may also be a promising tool in stemming the spread of AIDS.
“The Seek and Treat for Optimal Prevention of HIV/AIDS initiative (STOP AIDS) is focused around knowing a person is HIV-infected and having them be willing to take medications and successfully stay on medications,” says Money. “If WelTel is as successful as it promises to be, then it will be a vital tool in the population-wide roll out of STOP AIDS.
While the current focus of WelTel is HIV/AIDS care, Money feels this model of patient engagement and support could readily be adapted and applicable to caring for people with other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even dementia.
TELUS has recently become an important supporter of the WelTel program in the Oak Tree Clinic at BC Women’s Hospital. Once again, TELUS has stepped up to meet the unique healthcare needs of BC’s women and families. With the help from this generous, leading philanthropic company, doctors and patients will be better connected.
For now, the WelTel program will stay sharply focused on providing women and families currently living with HIV with continuous encouragement, caring support and a direct line to help when it’s needed.
Originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Women's Magazine. Free subscription here.
Written by Joseph Dubé
Photography by Vincent L. Chan