COVID-19 makes telehealth a “necessity overnight”

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When COVID-19 hit, it made hospitals and waiting rooms risky places to visit. People scheduled for regular checkups or routine care might be exposed to the virus. While elective procedures could be canceled, people still needed access to their care teams for help with all types of health issues.

The answer to this problem? Telehealth. Once a convenient alternative, it’s become essential.

“Providing this type of care during a time of crisis became a necessity overnight,” says OptumCare Client Product Officer Aliyah Quraishi.

So, what is telehealth or what does it encompass? Sonia Samagh, Optum national clinical lead for digital health, explains it this way:

“Telehealth, or telemedicine, isn’t just talking on the phone. It’s also video visits that allow face-to-face time between a patient and a provider. It’s digital tools like direct patient messaging and remote monitoring — any of which can be used to understand a patient’s symptoms and direct them to the appropriate care.”

It’s taking a huge effort to set up the systems to make telehealth more widely available, but the work is paying off.

Rapid response team ramps up telehealth

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Samagh’s teams have been working around the clock helping 1,000 to 2,000 care providers get their telehealth capabilities up and running every week.

Since the federal emergency declaration on March 13, the rapid response team has:

  • Helped nearly 4,750 care providers add video visits
  • Brought the total number of OptumCare providers offering video visits to nearly 6,000
  • Enabled a total number of 68,000 patient visits nationwide

Across the country, about 20% of all patient appointments are happening over video. The rate is even higher in certain areas. In early-hit Washington state, video chats account for more than half of patient visits at the OptumCare Polyclinic practice.

“It’s a true shift in the way we provide care,” says Samagh.

Quraishi’s teams are working on systems to make sure use of the new digital tools doesn’t add complexity to the system, but rather streamlines it for patients and providers. They are focused on making information more portable, accessible and shareable to ensure care providers have the most accurate and up-to-date patient information available.

“That means making it possible for one system to talk to another seamlessly,” says Quraishi. “So, whether I see my primary care physician and then see a specialist, both providers are talking to one another.”

Quraishi has seen firsthand what these tools can mean for patients and their families. Watch the video to hear her tell one story she’ll never forget.

 

Achieving a virtual connection with patients

While the style of communication is changing, the substance isn’t.

“It’s a matter of leveraging the same skill sets that we’ve had all of these decades in providing care to our patients through observation and questions and doing the same thing, just in virtual,” Samagh says.

The HouseCalls program offers an example. Under that program nurses visited patients in their homes to assess their health. But since that is not safe right now due to COVID-19, those nurses have transitioned to taking calls on the Optum NurseLine.

Pam Scott, an Optum nurse practitioner, says she’s able to connect with patients this way.

“Even when I am just talking to somebody on the phone, they may not know me or be able to see me, but when you take the time to listen, they’re grateful,” says Scott.

Samagh says it’s fantastic to know the digital tools are supporting and not hindering patient-provider relationships.

“We all know what it feels like to be worried about getting sick or to have a loved one who is sick and to not know where to go or what to do if you need care. Using technology to help relieve some of those worries is crucial,” says Samagh.

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