In the days immediately following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Solomiia Savchuk, a student at the Stanford School of Medicine, and Zoe von Gerlach, a Stanford engineering graduate student, set a bold intention: Find a way to provide meaningful medical support to people in Ukraine. Just months later, the confluence of their efforts has led to the launch of a telehealth program, called Telehelp Ukraine, that serves Ukrainians who need medical assistance -- those who remain in their home country as well as those who have sought refuge in Poland.
The all-volunteer online health service provides free, virtual health care from licensed professionals to people affected by the war. Telehelp Ukraine has hosted more than 200 appointments to date, and that number increases daily.
"My goal as a volunteer for Telehelp Ukraine was to provide care at a degree of quality that I would want for my own family and friends. I think we've done that," said Annalicia Pickering, MD, a pediatric hospitalist with Stanford Medicine, who was the first physician to volunteer for the program.
Harnessing the Stanford community
In pulling the program together, Savchuk drew on her experience volunteering with Cardinal Free Clinics and von Gerlach applied her passion for technology and software in medicine. The duo also consulted with Pickering, gaining insights from her experience as a physician at Gardener Packard Children's Health Center. Soon they settled on combining video conferencing technology with the expertise of Stanford Medicine physicians to provide medical care to Ukrainians.
"On day 1 of the invasion we were all glued to our phones, speechless," said Savchuk, who was born and raised in Ukraine. "There has been so much momentum since then, and we're using the resources we have here on campus to try and do something to help."
After securing permissions for licensed providers to practice medicine remotely in Ukraine and Poland, Telehelp Ukraine was up and running. Initially, the service offered only appointments in primary care and mental health, but over a few short months, they expanded into other specialties, including general adult medicine, pediatrics, women's health, cardiology, dermatology, rheumatology, neurology and endocrinology. One of the most-sought specialties is mental health.
"People who are witnessing war-related traumas need specialized counseling, and we are actively ensuring we can meet their needs," Pickering said. "We have been delivering trauma-informed mental health care from the beginning, and we have volunteer providers who are experts in delivering trauma-focused care."
Now, around 40% of all patient appointment requests are for mental health services.
The team, including participants from the Ukrainian Student Association at Stanford, has grown markedly, Pickering said. What started with a few determined members of the Stanford community has ballooned to a group of about 170 volunteers, all of whom were recruited by word of mouth. More than a quarter of the nearly 90 volunteer care providers are from Stanford Medicine, with many others located throughout the U.S. and Europe. The team also includes interpreters and volunteers who ensure the service runs smoothly.
"Incorporating language interpretation is what really sets Telehelp Ukraine apart from other initiatives," von Gerlach said. "It lets us offer medical services in a local language while leveraging physicians from abroad, even if they don't speak the language."
Responding to patient needs
One of the main goals of the service is to stay nimble in the care provided -- as the war evolves, so will the needs of patients. That, Savchuk said, has led to high patient satisfaction. (Every patient so far has reported that they would recommend Telehelp Ukraine to family, friends and others.)
"The patients I've interacted with have been grateful to know that there are so many people outside of Ukraine who care, who are paying attention to the conflict," Pickering said. "What many providers find rewarding is the idea that we're able to build human connections in such a volatile and vulnerable moment for these individuals."
Savchuk said Telehelp Ukraine will keep evolving and responding to the needs of Ukrainians, including adding specialty care providers when patients request them.
"I do not see the need for telehealth services in Ukraine going away any time soon, but at some point, we hope to expand further beyond Ukraine's borders," Savchuk said. "We think we've built a model that can be used in other places in the world to offer medical services to people in crisis."
Photo by Alex