The arrival of COVID-19 brought many changes to our healthcare system, but no development has touched more of our patients this year than the rapid growth of virtual care.
Our healthcare providers are seeing patients through video visits, phone visits, and e-visits at an unprecedented scale. In January 2020, we conducted 3,500 virtual care visits. By April, that number had grown to 120,000 visits. In an eight-month span beginning in March, our health system has logged more than 1 million virtual care encounters with patients. For several months this year, virtual care accounted for as much as 80 percent of our total outpatient visits.
“We were positioning our organization for the expansion of virtual care before COVID-19. However, the pandemic required us to adopt this change virtually overnight,” said Eric Nelson, president, primary care service line.
These changes may be welcome for many of our patients. Using a smartphone has become routine for shopping, banking, fitness, and other activities. But in recent years, healthcare has fallen behind in the use of new digital technology to meet consumer needs.
In an August survey of more than 1,300 of our patients, 80 percent of people who responded said they were likely to use phone visits as part of their healthcare journey going forward, and 68 percent said the same for video visits. Reactions were similar for older patients surveyed. Two thirds of people ages 65-74 considered themselves likely to use a video visit. Overall, only 16 percent of respondents were concerned about their ability to use virtual care technology.
“The hard work we’re putting into launching and improving our virtual care platforms will address a longstanding gap in how our services match customer expectations,” said Mandy Souba, vice president, Health Transformation Center. The Health Transformation Center is an innovation hub designed to make the healthcare experience easier for our patients. “We’re hearing appreciation for how virtual care makes it easy to access their provider, especially during COVID-19, and bring their family into the care experience.”
The sudden demand for virtual care and the progress we’ve made in building platforms to support it are not just one-time side effects of the pandemic — they represent a long-term shift that will make healthcare more accessible. Hurdles remain, including adequate access to technology and continued improvements to the patient’s digital experience.
Earlier this year, teams installed telemedicine booths in private rooms at M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital and at a nearby homeless shelter for use by patients needing quick and safe access to a mental health or addiction care provider during the COVID-19 pandemic. Designed for use by people who may not have a smartphone or computer, the booths are one way that we are addressing potential gaps in our new virtual care model.
Earlier this fall, our health system launched a broad task force to lead the development of our long-term virtual care vision. The task force goals include:
“Our goal is to increase virtual care use across the organization whenever it is clinically appropriate, and the patient is willing,” said Susan Pleasants, MD, chief medical informatics officer. “We are learning from our early experiences with virtual care. Those lessons and a continued partnership with our primary care and specialty care providers will shape the future of virtual care.”