Pivoting to virtual care is transforming operations

Lessons from other practices on how adding virtual care is enhancing their strategies and abilities.

The coronavirus pandemic completely upended healthcare as we know it. Providers are busier than ever treating COVID-19 patients. But they had to cease other activities, such as elective procedures and routine care, to prevent the spread of the virus.

The economic impact is dramatic. This includes revenue shortfalls at a time when expenses related to COVID-19 were soaring. Unprepared for this shift, many healthcare providers were forced to reduce costs. Becker's estimates that more than 266 hospitals and health systems had to furlough workers, with some even cutting positions altogether.

Furthermore, as practices re-open, patients are driving operational and administrative changes for a safer, more efficient experience. They don’t want to sit in waiting rooms—they want options for telehealth when applicable. They’d prefer to complete forms online versus a traditional clipboard and community pen at the doctor’s office. They aren’t responding to phone calls or voicemails to confirm appointments. Changing customer expectations are pushing for a reimagined patient experience.

Pivoting to Virtual Care

So, how did other healthcare providers respond to avoid the same fate, and even grow their business during such a tumultuous time? They pivoted to a virtual care model, which enabled their employees to work and their patients to receive care from home.

Only about 11% of patients used telehealth in 2019. But now, according to a McKinsey & Co. report, health professionals are seeing up to 175 times more patients via telehealth than they did prior to the pandemic, thanks to a loosening of regulations to allow for more reimbursement of these services and a greater comfort level with solutions. And telehealth isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, since both providers and patients have come to appreciate the convenience.

While telehealth will remain critical to practicing healthcare going forward, today’s providers must implement a full virtual care strategy in order to increase patient engagement and satisfaction and maintain profitability. From secure text and electronic forms to video chat, providers must continue to innovate and transform all aspects of care.

Here’s a closer look at how three different organizations leveraged virtual care to help patients throughout the pandemic while strengthening their business.

Continuity of Care in a Rural Community

Cass County Health System (CCHS) operates a 25-bed critical access hospital, rural healthcare clinic, emergency department and a lab, as well as offering specialty, rehabilitation, pharmacy and diagnostic imaging services in Atlantic, IA, about halfway between Omaha and Des Moines.

Two years ago, CCHS adopted a new virtual solution to help with fax management. By streamlining this workflow through a centralized web-based platform, the health system was able to greatly reduce fax failures and save a significant amount of time processing, sorting, and filing papers.

When COVID-19 struck, this system paid off. Staff never missed a beat when working from home, since they could send and retrieve faxes as they would in the office. And the system enabled them to add secure telehealth options with a click of a button.

"Many of our patients are elderly, so our system—which didn't require any additional software to download—made it very easy for them to use for video visits," said Rodney Goodemote, a CCHS systems analyst. "These types of telehealth offerings are here to stay. With winter approaching, we believe our patients will take advantage of them so they don't even have to leave home to see their physician."

Growing a Practice through Strong Patient Relationships

Bridgeport Family Medicine is a primary care practice comprised of seven physicians and 14 staff who pride themselves on delivering personalized care to their 10,000 active patients.

In January 2020, the practice, located in Tigard, OR, southwest of Portland, deployed a new platform that would increase staff efficiency in dealing with reams of paperwork. The system lightened the workload considerably, taking one medical assistant only a few hours to do what had previously consumed an entire day.

Shortly before the pandemic struck, Bridgeport started offering telemedicine services that were integrated with its new platform. The seamless back-end integrated files with video chat, making it easy to serve patients whether in the office or online. New broadcast email and text capabilities allowed the practice to communicate more effectively with patients, sharing updates about available services and clearing up COVID misconceptions.

"Our virtual care platform helped us stay open, grow and hire new physicians while other practices were furloughing people or closing," said Karina Prado, Bridgeport's office manager and medical assistant. "During the height of COVID-19, our patients appreciated our video telehealth option, which enabled them to be quickly seen and next steps determined. Now we continue to use it for normal wellness checks and may expand telehealth for follow-ups with our patients dealing with anxiety and depression."

Transforming Pharmacy Operations

Williamsburg Drug Company serves more than 9,000 patients at its two locations in Williamsburg, VA About a year ago, the pharmacy adopted a new web-based solution that gave all employees easy access to labs, physician referrals and other patient information. This platform replaced a single computer at one of its locations, which caused much inefficiency for its staff.

The new platform also allowed the pharmacists to communicate with patients in a HIPAA-compliant way. New patient forms and insurance information could be filled out online, and orders for testing could be electronically sent to clinics and labs. The pharmacists could also easily send reminders that helped them eliminate no-shows for appointments.

Telehealth hadn't been a consideration, but when the pandemic hit, Williamsburg Drug Company shifted gears. Video chat capabilities allowed pharmacists to help patients take measurements for compression wear, like hernia belts, without having to visit the store. They could also talk with patients and their caregivers to ensure proper timing and dosing of medication.

"Telehealth has been transformative for our pharmacy, helping us maintain revenue, achieve cost savings, and serve our patients who were hesitant to visit our locations in person," said Adam Brown, CPhT at Williamsburg Drug Company. "Our staff productivity improved by 30% and we've saved thousands on paper and toner. We've also been able to add new services, like immunizations; and our patient volume has increased by about 9%, since we're able to be more responsive thanks to our virtual care platform."

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of chaos for the healthcare sector, but it has also provided an opportunity to innovate and better engage patients. Implementing virtual care solutions in a meaningful, strategic way is critical to the long-term success of healthcare practices, systems, and pharmacies. Providers that are open to adapting will be better equipped to keep patients happy and healthy, while ensuring that the business of medicine also flourishes.

About the Author

Michael Morgan is president of Updox. With a successful track record in helping organizations use technology to transform the way healthcare is delivered, Mike has more than 25 years of healthcare leadership within software, behavioral health, and HIT organizations. Updox, an EverCommerce company, was named to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America for the past six consecutive years.