Illuminator Podcast: How Louisiana used phones to access health care in COVID-19

An interview with Christiaan Mader and Marie Elizabeth Oliver

Hosted By: Julie O'Donoghue - December 9, 2020


Below is a transcript of a portion of this podcast episode. Julie O’Donoghue interviews journalists Christiaan Mader and Marie Elizabeth Oliver about their reporting project, Lifeline COVID: How the telephone answered Louisiana’s call for help. Mader is the founder and executive editor of The Current in Lafayette. 

Julie: Through his reporting, Christiaan discovered that telehealth was helpful for treating opioid addiction specifically. During the early months of the pandemic, people met with doctors remotely in order to receive prescription refills for a medication that keeps drug cravings under control. Normally, those would have been in-person meetings. 

But it turned out that opioid patients were more likely to keep their telehealth appointments during the pandemic than their in-person appointments they scheduled before COVID-19 ever came.

Christiaan: What we did see, right, were that people who were already in the system — who already had relationships with physicians like a doctor or a nurse practitioner  that was prescribing  them buprenorphine — were keeping their appointments at really, really high levels right. So there was this kind of convention right within the mental health community, behavioral health community that — they call it the Medicaid no-show rate — is about 50 percent, meaning 50 percent of the time, people make an appointment and they don’t show up. Well you know I talked to a lot of prescribers around the state. What we were finding is that people would keep their appointments at higher rates right, which is essential if ultimately what you are trying to do is stick with the program right?

Julie: You might assume that telehealth would be difficult in some parts of the state. Louisiana struggles with broadband access and lots of people don’t have the internet at home. But during the pandemic, Medicaid hasn’t required that telehealth visits be done over video chat. A lot of the treatment could take place over the phone. 

Christiaan: Here’s a case where you don’t actually have to roll out any cable to make a big difference right. Like you can stick with a technology that people already have, which is the telephone and you allow them to use it and you have a result to show for it — namely that people will actually keep their appointments and get healthy. And I can’t emphasize this enough, this medication itself is life saving right? Like we’re not just talking about people just being able to check in, like this is a course of treatment that has demonstrated to be very very very powerful. And so reducing barriers to accessing that is actually a life-saving procedure and it seems to be something we could do without spending a lot of money.

Listen to the full episode here.

You can find The Current’s full health care series here.


Christiaan Mader

The Current, Executive Editor

Mader founded The Current, an online news and culture publication in Lafayette, in 2018.

Marie Elizabeth Oliver

Independent journalist

Oliver teachers journalism at the University of Louisiana - Lafayette and previously worked for The Washington Post.