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Ascension hospitals start mobile labs to bring X-ray, ultrasound, blood work screenings to patients

Nicole Villalpando,
Colby Thompson, an athletic trainer, and nurse Daresha Harris remove their personal protective equipment after performing a test on a patient outside a home in Round Rock on Friday. Ascension Seton has started a new mobile lab to help patients get their presurgery testing done while reducing the risk of exposure to the new coronavirus. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Right now, as hospitals have returned to doing nonemergency surgeries, doctors are sending their patients for testing ― including checking for COVID-19 ― a few days before the surgery. They then ask their patients to quarantine at home until their surgeries.

But some patients and their doctors might worry about coming into contact with the coronavirus, or any other virus, that could not only delay the surgery, but be dangerous or deadly for that patient.

On Wednesday, Ascension Seton launched its first mobile lab, a van that will come to the patient’s home and do the necessary testing. The technicians are wearing personal protective equipment and can do the testing from a front porch, without setting foot in the patient’s home.

“When COVID happened, we had to think outside the box and still provide health care to patients and limit their exposure and limit our exposure to them,” said Dr. James M. Callas, chief medical officer for Ascension Medical Group Temple and Ascension Medical Group Georgetown.

When Gov. Greg Abbott began to allow nonemergency surgeries again on April 23, Callas said his doctors’ patients were flooding the drive-thru testing center in Round Rock. This is a way to get the testing done in a more controlled manner, he said.

Patients in Round Rock and Georgetown are getting the mobile lab first, and Ascension is concentrating on the most vulnerable patients. Within a week, Waco will get a mobile lab. By June, Austin will have mobile labs.

While these labs are starting with COVID-19 testing, Ascension will quickly add blood work, ultrasounds, X-rays and electrocardiograms, and the technicians to run those tests.

The mobile labs will not just be for patients waiting on surgery. Callas is excited about the possibility of combining the mobile lab with telemedicine.

Abbott loosened the restrictions on telemedicine in March because of COVID-19, which made virtual doctor visits more possible, but those appointments have limits.

“When you do a virtual visit with the physician, they need data to actually make an assessment,” Callas said.

Doctors have been doing telemedicine but then sending their patients to a lab location to get blood work or to the hospital or another center to get X-rays, ultrasounds or another diagnostic test.

The mobile lab can do the same thing at their house. All the equipment will come out of the van. Patients will not go into the van.

“This will last long after COVID because virtual care is something that is going to stay in patients’ lives,” Callas said.

He thinks of scenarios such as a patient falling in their house and hurting their elbow. A doctor would then order the mobile unit to go to their house and X-ray their elbow. That test can then be sent to a radiologist and the doctor to help decide whether the elbow will require surgery or something less that could be handled at home.

“They didn’t expose the patient to anything,” he said. It’s not just about COVID-19; it’s about flu and other viruses and a vulnerable population.

He thinks of what the mobile lab could bring to senior living centers and nursing homes, which have been especially hard hit by the coronavirus.

“You can change the way care is delivered in the nursing home,” he said.

Flu for a younger person is usually not dangerous, he said: “Flu for my grandmother will kill her. We have to be protective of people.”

To use the mobile lab, a patient’s doctor will have to order the lab to come to their house.

Callas does not expect there to be any cost difference between the mobile lab and a brick-and-mortar location. It’s use already is approved by Medicare.

“I wish we had done this three months ago,” he said.