Before COVID-19, nearly all of the annual 650,000 patient visits within the NHRMC Physician Group were in person.
Then came physical distancing and stay at home orders.
Hundreds of providers and staff at NHRMC Physician Group primary and specialty care outpatient practices had to quickly adapt to ensure patients still had access to care. After federal regulators relaxed restrictions and allowed the expansion of telehealth, Physician Group leaders and Information Services technology experts quickly assembled a plan to offer that option at their practices.
The use of telehealth visits was widely accepted by both providers and patients, said Jennifer Pollard, Director of Practice Operations for the Physician Group.
“Patients have been really grateful that we put their safety first,” Pollard said. Though some limited in-office visits continued, many patients didn’t want to come into the office. So instead of cancelling the appointment, patients had the opportunity to be seen virtually. “I think that’s an incredible opportunity to reach patients where they are,” she said.
Staff at physician practices would call each patient with an upcoming in-person appointment to see if they wanted to switch to a video or phone visit. Some patients are very tech-savvy and others need some technological help. Staff members helped coach patients through the hurdles, like asking if they can take pictures on their phone or if they do video calls with family, to determine if they were able to do a video visit.
The telehealth visits were especially useful for primary care patients with minor medical conditions and patients with chronic illnesses. Patients can take their blood pressure or blood sugar readings at home, for example, and then update their provider to see if they need additional intervention.
Although telehealth is different from being in the room, Pollard pointed out it was just a different way for patients to reach providers they already know and trust. “You can’t discount how important it is to have that relationship with your provider,” Pollard said.
Meanwhile, NHRMC Physician Group employees worked diligently to implement new safety procedures in the office to protect patients who were being seen in person. As of June 1, Physician Group locations will have generally resumed normal operations, and in-person visits have increased.
“I am proud of our team of providers and staff for offering these creative new methods of patient interaction,” said Dan Goodwin, Vice President of the Physician Network. “We learned a lot in a short time. While the number of in-person visits now outnumber telehealth, we are prepared to ramp-up those telehealth visits again if needed as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”