As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area continues to increase, local Sutter affiliates continue to ramp up usage of video visits as a safer alternative to in-person care. The more patient consultations our clinicians can conduct virtually, the more effectively we can curtail the spread of the virus, conserve critical equipment and keep our hospitals, clinics and healthcare workers from becoming overwhelmed.
While Sutter has offered telehealth via phone, messaging and video for several years, a coordinated effort to deploy virtual solutions rapidly in the wake of this crisis has led to explosive growth in video visits. According to Albert Chan, M.D., chief of digital patient experience, the number of patients being served systemwide by video visits has expanded by 175-fold, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Video visits are just one way we are leveraging our integrated network to provide innovative care during this time,” says Dr. Chan. “We anticipate this tool will relieve some of the pressure off our front line clinicians as we adapt to serve patients with COVID-19 symptoms.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging all healthcare providers to increase telehealth services and encouraging patients to stay away from healthcare facilities unless experiencing a medical emergency. In mid-March, the federal government granted all Medicare enrollees coverage for phone and video visits regardless of circumstances. Because Sutter Health is an integrated care network servicing 22 Northern California counties, the system was able to mobilize efficiently to follow CDC’s recommendation and fulfill the spike in patient demand.
Prior to COVID-19, our network averaged about 200 video visits per week, whereas a single day in March saw nearly 2,600. For April, Palo Alto Medical Foundation alone has dramatically increased its capacity to serve patients virtually through this patient portal as we continuously add capacity for video visits in primary and specialty care.
To further expand access to video visits, philanthropy teams across the network pooled resources to make $1.5M available for a systemwide purchase of iPads. So far, 950 iPads have been deployed to patients and clinicians in isolation while about 2,000 units have been provided to physicians to conduct video visits. Through this continued philanthropy partnership, 1,000 additional iPads are soon to arrive to support telemedicine efforts, with a goal to ultimately equip thousands more physicians in Sutter’s network.
Already, the iPad-enabled video visits are making a significant impact. Through an app called Epic Canto, physicians are connecting with patients seamlessly while reducing both parties’ risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“With video visits, we’re still able to connect and provide important healthcare for patients,” says Aarti Srinivasan, M.D., an internal medicine physician at the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group. “I’ve found I can engage with patients just like we are in the office together and support their wellbeing through this challenging time.”
The iPads are also playing a positive role for our COVID-19 patients by allowing them to communicate visually with their loved ones who aren’t allowed to visit. Recently, a patient at Sutter Roseville Medical Center got the opportunity to say goodbye to her son the day before his military deployment. Additionally, patients and care staff can correspond via iPad, thereby limiting the number of times providers must enter their hospital rooms and risk exposure to the virus.
Given these myriad benefits, video visits and other forms of virtual communication will likely remain mainstays of patient care even after the virus threat subsides. Our clinicians are learning new ways to deliver care virtually — from acute respiratory illness, to everyday complaints such as the flu or urinary tract infections to management of chronic disease.
“Telemedicine is perhaps is the only silver lining of this horrible pandemic,” Dr. Chan says. “It is transformative — I don’t think we’ll ever go back to medicine B.C., as in before coronavirus. Over the next few weeks, each and every day will be shaping the way we practice medicine A.C. — after coronavirus.