Northborough volunteer collects smart devices for seniors needing telehealth access

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By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Xiao Zheng holds smartphones she collected to donate to local veterans’ hospitals to improve telehealth access.
Photo/submitted

Northborough – Her college classrooms are closed, but Northborough’s Xiao Zheng remains hard at work this month. She’s collecting phones and tablets and donating them to local senior citizens who need access to increasingly prevalent “telehealth” medicine.

“It is worthwhile to spend energy to help this population specifically,” she explained. 

Zheng is part of a rapidly growing nonprofit network simply titled, TeleHealth Access for Seniors. The Florida-based group is the brainchild of two of Zheng’s Yale classmates and has rapidly grown since Yale, like most colleges, shut down in mid-March due to the coronavirus. 

Currently, TeleHealth Access is operating in 20 states across the country, connecting local volunteers like Zheng with senior living facilities or hospitals that say they need more devices to help connect their patients with outside doctors. 

“It’s been growing really fast,” Zheng explained. 

Serving as the organizations’ “Massachusetts Lead,” Zheng works with two other local volunteers, including Esther Mou, a Westborough High School sophomore.

Together, the trio has reached out to local media outlets, high school and community connections, friends and local nonprofits seeking any and all devices they can get their hands on. 

Zheng has been collecting the devices at her home and plans to deliver them to three different veterans’ hospitals in Bedford, Boston and Northampton. 

As of May 6, Zheng had 20 phones and tablets, adding that she hopes to increase that total to well past 100.

“There’s not many yet,” she said. “But we’re hoping to get more.” 

Telehealth is a surging facet of a medical world embattled by the coronavirus pandemic. Visits increased by a factor of 12 from mid-March to early April, according to an April 28 statement from the White House Council of Economic Advisors.

Many of those new telehealth appointments have come for senior citizens who often have pre-existing conditions, but who cannot shoulder the infection risk of visiting a traditional doctor’s office in this climate.

As research shows seniors often do not have up-to-date tech or do not know how to use the tech they do have, Zheng said her work is crucial. 

“The mission is so closely connected with the immediate crisis at hand,” she explained. “Hospitals are overcrowded as it is, so having telehealth as an avenue for appointments makes it easier for the patients and the doctors.”

To learn more about TeleHealth Access for Seniors, visit telehealthforseniors.org. That site also has information on how to donate an old device or funds to ship or repair donated equipment. Those interested in donating specifically to the Massachusetts beneficiaries of this project may email Xiao Zheng at [email protected]