Telehealth during COVID-19: What one large private GI practice learned
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it critically important to have the option to see a health care provider while remaining safely at home. Enter telehealth, which allows us to see patients remotely.
Capital Digestive Care, the largest independent gastroenterology practice in the Mid-Atlantic, was able to quickly scale up our telehealth practice in the midst of the pandemic. Since implementing telehealth, the group’s nearly 70 physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants have more than 10,000 patients through virtual visits.
Here are some lessons our providers have learned along the way about how to provide excellent patient care during a pandemic.
Practice leadership is key
Our providers were able to get up and running quickly on because we had already invested in telehealth and had conducted a pilot of the platform with a smaller group of providers well before the pandemic hit. In March, we were able to expand the telehealth platform and establish an integration with our EMR to accommodate virtual visits.
Be flexible, have a backup plan
While we’ve been able to see many patients online using our established platform, we need to be flexible for patients who struggle with technology, or when telehealth platforms are strained by bandwidth issues a common challenge nationwide.
We quickly came out with alternative platforms we could use in a pinch, including FaceTime. It’s also helpful to have patients join the visits about 10 minutes early, so you can troubleshoot any problems. If you’re motivated, you’ll find a way to make it work.
Know what types of visits work best
While it likely comes as no surprise that follow-up visits are the easiest type of visits to conduct remotely, we’ve found that you can still conduct visits where the physical exam is less important like gastroesophageal reflux disease, according to David L. Jager, MD, who has been a leader in our practice on telehealth implementation.
Still, there will be some gastroenterology procedures for which telehealth won’t be appropriate. For those patients whose needs can’t be met via telehealth, we’ve established a system for prioritization based on state guidelines, for when the ambulatory and endoscopy centers can fully re-open.
Telehealth is here to stay
When the pandemic subsides, there will be many patients who want to use telehealth for routine care. They won’t want to sit in traffic and rush to appointments; they’ll want the convenience of seeing a provider without taking time away from work. Payers will need to recognize that these visits should be reimbursed at the same rate as regular, in-person office visits.
Amy Stewart, CRNP, participated in some of the practice’s first pilot tests of telehealth. An early adopter of the technology, she says that while telehealth comes with challenges, ultimately, patients and providers are going to benefit. “Now, people are realizing that it can be good care, done well.”