Helping patients keep appointments, keep calm, keep connected


When COVID-19 arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area, people had questions, they needed care, and health systems needed to know what to expect. Leaders at John Muir Health in the East Bay knew they would have to address these challenges as they mobilized to support patients during the pandemic.

Predicting the curve

One of the first things they did was use data and analytics to know exactly what they were up against. They set out to use predictive modeling to find answers to questions like:

  • Do we have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep our staff and patients safe?
  • How many COVID-19 patients will we see in the next days, weeks and months?
  • Do we have enough ICU beds and ventilators?
  • How many people do we need working at any given time?

John Muir Health CFO Chris Pass says they first looked at what happened in some of the first places hit by COVID-19, like China and South Korea.

“We thought, if we think about what happened in these other markets, we might get some leading indicators to know we’re surging, we’ve hit the surge, we’ve hit the peak.”

Optum jumped in to help — making those experiences and the data they produced relevant to the Bay Area.

“Our team worked very closely with John Muir to build custom local models, to tap into broader Optum data sets to refine those models,” explains Nick Howell, senior vice president of Optum Transformational Partnerships. “The model we built has proven very effective in predicting the curve.”

Driving human connection with technology

They also needed to ensure safety measures, both for patients in the hospital and for visitors, were quickly established. But they didn’t want to lose the human connection John Muir Health believes is central to the healing process. So, they moved quickly to provide tablets to patients.

“We restrict visitors right now. The tablets allow the patients to do a video visit with family members so that they can have that connection,” says Pass.

In this video, Pass discusses the healing power of that connection. He also explains that the tablets have valuable applications for video visits between a patient and provider who are both inside a hospital.


Pass says another issue they needed to address right away was the ability to handle a big increase in phone calls. Together with Optum, they rapidly stood up a call center.

“It really has helped provide patients with information,” says Howell. “It also provided relief to overburdened practice offices that were getting hit with a significant volume of phone calls from patients looking for help.”

Listen as Pass and Howell describe the value of the call center in terms of flattening the curve and supporting social distancing measures.


Creative use of high- and low-tech solutions

John Muir Health is also using video visits and text messaging to screen patients and convert in-person appointments to virtual visits. Now, when an appointment is scheduled, patients receive a link to a virtual visit through email or text message.

They’re planning to add a chatbot — a program that uses artificial intelligence to mimic human conversation — to their website. Based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, it will be able to screen for COVID-19 symptoms and help patients decide if they need to see a doctor.

There have been some lower-tech solutions as well. One example: Long tubing makes it possible to make medication changes from outside an isolation room.

Many of these moves have the added benefit of helping John Muir Health conserve personal protective gear.

“We felt like we’d been able to secure enough, but the risk of wasting it was something we didn’t want to take on,” explains Pass.

A future after COVID-19

Even when the COVID-19 crisis ends, many of the innovations John Muir Health has embraced with help from Optum will continue to bear fruit.

Patients and providers are already more comfortable using telehealth and appreciate the convenience and efficiency. The organization will be more data-driven going forward as well, building on the models created for COVID-19 and applying them to patient and care pattern analytics.

“The partnership with Optum has enabled us to help our local community a whole lot quicker than we could otherwise do on our own,” says Pass. “And being able to scale at that pace, now that the market is changing so rapidly coming out of COVID-19, will really enable us to do things that we couldn’t have done in the past.”

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