Dr. Daragh Heitzman
Founded by Dr. Daragh Heitzman in 2000, the ALS Clinic at Texas Neurology has served the ALS community for the past 20 years.
After his neurology residency, Dr. Heitzman went to the Cleveland Clinic, where half of his patients were people with ALS. When he returned to Dallas in the mid-nineties to open his private practice, he began to realize that he missed caring for ALS patients. He saw a need for multidisciplinary care in North Texas and for clinical trials to drive research advancements for ALS treatments. After encouragement from other colleagues across the country, he decided to open the ALS Clinic at Texas Neurology in Dallas.
“If You Build It, They Will Come”
At first, the clinics were held every three months, with six patients at each clinic. The number of patients grew exponentially over the years. Today, clinics are held twice a month, serving between 30 – 35 patients per month. Dr. Heitzman estimates that they currently care for 220 – 230 people living with ALS.
“We know patients live longer when they attend clinic. It also saves them from having to visit multiple healthcare providers – physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational, respiratory therapy. If you can consolidate that, it makes it easier on the patients and the caregivers. Most healthcare providers, including neurologists, have zero experience with ALS. Coming to a clinic allows you to get it all-in-one, and to get help from people who are experienced with ALS. “
Telemedicine: Breaking Down Barriers to Access
Telemedicine isn’t a new concept, but prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers struggled with implementing telemedicine. There were virtual platform restrictions and the fact that insurance wouldn’t reimburse for virtual visits. When the lockdown started, most ALS clinics across the state closed for several months for the safety of their patients. But the ALS community, the ALS Association, the American Academy of Neurology, and other organizations advocated for an expansion on telemedicine, resulting in new guidelines that removed these barriers and enabled a widespread adoption. The ALS Clinic at Texas Neurology began to offer telemedicine to patients, and while some preferred to wait until they could meet in-person, patients from far away (such as Lubbock or Amarillo) and those who were in a more advanced stage of the disease jumped at the opportunity.
Dr. Heitzman and his team have seen the advantage of providing a telemedicine option to patients long-term. “We need to see them initially to make the diagnosis, but thereafter, with the exception of doing PFT’s (pulmonary function tests), we can do this all through telemedicine,” Dr. Heitzman states. “But I think we can get to the point where we will be able eventually be able to send them a kit that they can do at home and then send to the pulmonologist. It just makes it a lot easier on the patient.”
There are still challenges to overcome with telemedicine, such as lack of access to internet for people in under-resourced communities, and the fact that the current guidelines enabling broader use of telemedicine are currently temporary. Along with partners such as the ALS Clinic at Texas Neurology, we are working to overcome these challenges and advocate for Texans with ALS to continue to have access to telemedicine to continue the crucial care they need to improve their quality of life.