Virtual Bariatric Nutrition Program Provides New Opportunities for Care 'Without Walls'

July 22, 2020

Pictured above: Several bariatric virtual support group participants on a recent call with Cheri Leahy, RDN, CSOWM; Cristin Polizzi, Wellness Program Coordinator. 

As the pandemic rapidly made work-from-home a norm, people scrambled to develop plans to maintain productivity. Healthcare providers had methods in place – particularly telemedicine – to stay in touch with patients. However, in the world of bariatric surgery, additional means of connection are crucial to keeping patients on track with their progress.

Cheri Leahy, RDN, CSOWM, and Cristin Polizzi, Wellness Program Coordinator, with the Jefferson Health New Jersey Bariatric Surgery Program, realized the importance of this. Their dedicated team takes pride in implementing a distinctive, long-term wellness approach. For years, they’ve offered numerous wellness and educational services to ensure follow-up and positive outcomes. When such in-person events faced cancellation, they knew they had to act fast.

Within a week’s time – the first week they were away from the office – Cheri and Cristin spearheaded the Virtual Bariatric Nutrition Program. While they inevitably aimed to keep appointments and future surgeries scheduled, the ultimate goal was to make sure patients felt cared for through the screen, Cheri explained.

“We spoke everyday about how we could continue to empower our patients, so they wouldn’t have to go through this incredibly difficult time alone,” said Cheri. “We didn’t want anything to change. We love what we do; we just needed to change how we do it.”

Luckily, this wasn’t the first time they had brainstormed ways to use the technology at their disposal, explains Cristin. They already had countless ideas; they just never before had the time to put them in place.

Throughout April, in addition to pre- and post-surgical visits and nutrition consults, held via JeffConnect, they started to roll-out virtual patient seminars and mandatory pre-op classes with unlimited attendance and live or prerecorded versions. By mid-May, virtual support groups began. Held twice a month, they are coupled with a private support group page on Facebook, where people can share their stories and accomplishments, as well as partake in fun fitness and mindfulness challenges.  

While this virtual program has helped keep people safe from transmission of the coronavirus, it has had other unique benefits, the most prominent of which is increased accessibility to care.

Now, patients and providers are just a call away from each other. Less patients are cancelling appointments, because they aren’t facing the same obligations, emergencies, or transportation complications, says Cristin.

If patients run into technological difficulties on one platform, Cheri offers other options, such as phone calls, which helps break down communication barriers. Her patients have noted that they’ve especially enjoyed the care “without walls” that has allowed them to take a peek into each other’s kitchens – “show and telling” ingredients, dishes, and more! Many of them also screen-share progress they’ve tracked on applications.

In the virtual support groups, patients are held accountable during a time that has been filled with nutrition troubles and temptations due to stay-at-home orders. Some patients are more willing to share than ever before, adds Cristin. “I’m seeing some of our shyest patients come out of their shells. There’s an atmosphere of no judgement in which everyone cheers each other on.”

Many patients, like Geri Valencia, have expressed their gratitude for all the program has to offer. “I was worried when my appointments were initially cancelled at the outbreak of the pandemic. Luckily, I’ve been able to virtually attend some amazing classes that have kept me informed, motivated, and hopeful!”

Geri was even told she could retake her nutrition class prior to surgery to refresh her memory, which made her feel comforted and supported.

Their successes have been clear and measurable. By month 2 of working-from-home, Cheri had seen nearly a 15 percent increase in patient visits. For Cristin, attendance of her virtual support groups increased 140 percent from May to June.

Not only has the program opened new means of connection with patients, but it has also strengthened communication between staff. Cheri and Cristin, who work at the outpatient office located in Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital have now had the exciting opportunity to teach side-by-side with their bariatric counterparts at Jefferson Stratford Hospital.

“We truly took the traditional idea of nutrition and wellness and removed it from its one, small box,” said Cristin. At the end of they day, the bariatric surgery team strives to ensure patients experience wellness in every aspect of their life. The Virtual Bariatric Nutrition Program has helped them do just that.

To learn more about Bariatric Surgery at Jefferson Health in New Jersey, click HERE