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Virtual Health Care: Your Questions Answered by a Telehealth Pioneer

If you follow the latest developments in health care, you may have noticed: telehealth has taken off. Our country is focused on making health care more accessible for Americans, and naturally, telehealth has emerged as a key innovation that can help to make this a reality. It’s an effective way to deliver evidence-based medicine – and it’s something that we as physicians can embrace right now.

Dr. Peter Antall

Dr. Peter Antall

As President and Medical Director of the world’s first telehealth practice, Online Care Group, I’m often asked a handful of common questions about telehealth. Here, I share the most common questions and my answers with Real World Health Care’s readers.

What is telehealth?

To me, telehealth is simple. Telehealth is a live video visit between a doctor and a patient from home or work. This differs from traditional telemedicine, which mainly connected hospital facilities to each other and relied on big, expensive hardware in clinical locations.

With telehealth, the patient can have a video visit with a doctor using every day consumer technologies that are becoming ubiquitous: a smartphone, tablet, or computer. There are other forms of telehealth on the market that use only phone or secure email; however, these visits do not allow for the same level of clinical patient evaluation. I have met with medical boards and associations across the country and found that live video is greatly preferred because it represents the closest interaction comparable to an in-person visit.

Do patients really want to talk to a doctor virtually?

For starters, let me just ask you when was the last time you shopped, banked, booked travel, made a dinner reservation, filed your taxes, or communicated with friends and family online. Chances are – if you’re like many Americans – you’ve done more than one of these things today, probably on your phone or tablet.

While the health care industry has done a great job of supplying information to patients online and has even started to offer patients the opportunity to book appointments online, information and scheduling stop short of what patients want and expect from health care: quality interactions with clinicians. To date, health care ‘transactions’ have only occurred at the intersection of a physical location and the supply of available clinicians. The industry can do better.

Over the last several years, a number of studies have shown that patients are rapidly warming to the concept of interacting with doctors online. Estimates suggest that half to three-quarters of Americans are interested in online consults, and I’d expect this number to grow as more patients have access to telehealth services and as more doctors offer such services to patients.

If you think about the patient experience today, it’s not surprising that most folks respond so positively to the value of telehealth. Consider the national average wait time to see a doctor of 18.5 days, not to mention the excessive wait time in certain urban and rural areas. And once you’re in the doctor’s office, that wait can be long, too, which you know if you’ve ever spent two or three hours in an urgent care clinic or emergency room waiting to be seen. Retail clinics are an option, but these are generally not staffed by a doctor and are often not available outside of normal business hours.

On the other hand, a patient can see a doctor in just a few minutes from their phone or tablet. For example, our wait times at the Online Care Group currently average less than 2.5 minutes, and there’s no appointment or travel required. So it’s not surprising that 97% of patients rate the service “very good” or “excellent”.

How do you examine a patient during a telehealth visit?

Examining a patient through video is different from in-person, though the fundamental rules of medicine still apply. The most important elements of any consultation – online or in-person – is taking a thorough history, asking plenty of questions, and doing a visual examination. Having a video connection with a patient is really important in helping to understand the patient’s overall demeanor and level of discomfort and stress, just as in the exam room. This gives me great insight into the patient’s physical and mental well-being. In terms of a physical exam, I’ve developed protocols to help our doctors guide patients through self-exams in order to provide empirical feedback that’s useful in making certain diagnoses.

One of our main tenets is that doctors must use their own clinical discretion when treating patients online. Our physicians diagnose and treat only when enough data can be ascertained in the video consultation to do so. If not, our physicians triage the patient and refer out for in-person care. That may mean seeing their doctor in-person, going to the emergency room, or ordering tests at a local health center.

What about security issues?

As with brick-and-mortar medicine, it is extremely important to protect patient health information. The information regarding a patient’s health should remain private between the physician and the patient and be stored securely, in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). American Well provides a secure space for patients to safely and confidentially consult with a doctor online. This is imperative for an effective and safe telehealth practice.

What does telehealth have to offer me as a doctor?

Telehealth is not only convenient for patients; it offers doctors flexibility at work, reliable pay, and access to new patients. And not only individual and group practices, but even large medical practices and hospitals, are starting to use telehealth to attract and retain patients and to expand their reach.

By incorporating telehealth, hospitals under accountable care organization (ACO) contracts, or otherwise caring for patients under capitation, reap the financial benefits of having healthier patients. Private offices can offer open access and after-hours care or designate that a subset of visits, like medication follow-up, be managed through telehealth. Practices can also bring in other specialties virtually into their office, like certified diabetes educators, dieticians, or behavioral health specialists.

Can I make money with telehealth?

There is high demand from patients for urgent-care-like telehealth services. Today, physicians across the country – including those in our national telehealth practice – make a very good living practicing medicine online, providing care anywhere from 10-40 hours per week.

Another option is for doctors to offer telehealth to their existing patients. In many states, doctors are already being reimbursed for services delivered to their own patients by including GT modifiers in their billing (this modifier is used to indicate telehealth services via interactive audio and video telecommunication systems). Currently 20 states mandate private payer reimbursement for telehealth services and 45 states reimburse for some telehealth services. As our doctors move from fee-for-service to capitated payment models under the Affordable Care Act, they are absorbing the risk (“rewarded for performance,” as some might say). Telehealth is one way to improve efficacy and efficiency of patient care. Telehealth lets doctors increase the number of touch points for patients, which potentially can improve outcomes as well.

Is telehealth the future of healthcare?

Telehealth isn’t really a new form of healthcare; it is the same healthcare that Americans are using every day, delivered in a faster, less expensive, more convenient way. Although not everything can be treated via telehealth, it’s a great option for many types of acute care, chronic care, behavioral health, and wellness services. Patients, doctors, hospital systems, employers, insurers, regulators, and legislators are all rapidly changing the way they view health care in order to incorporate telehealth. In the coming months, the proof that telehealth is here to stay will become even more evident. It’s time to embrace the now of health care.

Have you ever used telehealth? Would you? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

If you have any questions or to learn more about where and how I practice telehealth, email me at peter.antall@americanwell.com.

Dr. Antall is the Medical Director of Online Care Group, a physician-owned primary care group that offers its clinical services online using American Well’s technology. American Well’s web and mobile telehealth platform connects patients and clinicians for live, clinically meaningful visits through video, supplemented by secure text chat and phone. For more information, visit AmericanWell.com

Categories: Access to Care

Cleveland Clinic’s Value-Based Care Team Improves Patient Wait Times, Saves Costs

Cleveland Clinic CEO and President Toby Cosgrove, MD, believes that the medical center is ready to “lead the charge” in delivering better patient outcomes and faster care, all at a lower cost.

Dr. Toby Cosgrove

Toby Cosgrove, MD

To that end, the Cleveland Clinic has established a Value-Based Care Team, made up of physicians, nurses and other experts who will work together to translate “better, lower cost and faster” into everyday practice. Services are rationalized across the network, with multi-specialty teams using system-wide resources to deliver the right care at the right place for every patient, at the right time with the right cost.

“Value is the centerpiece of Cleveland Clinic’s strategy,” said Associate Chief of Staff for Clinical Integration Development, Dr. David Longworth, who heads the Clinic’s Value-Based Care Steering Committee. “We are focused on two areas. One is to eliminate unnecessary practice variation by developing evidence-based care paths across diseases. The other is comprehensive care coordination to allow patients to move seamlessly through the system so that we reduce unnecessary hospitalizations and ER visits.”

According to Dr. Longworth, the TeamCare model helps to:

  • Increase throughput.
  • Reduce the cost-per-unit of service.
  • Improve patient and provider satisfaction.

“In the past, each physician had one medical assistant who simply roomed the patient and took vitals,” he explained. “All the chart work was done by the physician, often at home in the evenings, adding several hours of work to their day and extra time to the entire process. Now, physicians go home at the end of the day with all their charts closed.”

The TeamCare model helps the Cleveland Clinic improve its Patient Experience ratings in a number of measured metrics, including:

  • 22.8 percent improvement in wait time at clinic.
  • 10.7 percent improvement in wait time in exam room to see provider.
  • 8.9 percent improvement in the time the provider spent with the patient.

While the Value-Based Care Team may be a concept borne of the new world of health care, the Cleveland Clinic has a rich history of improving patient outcomes. In 2000, the Clinic became the first hospital in the U.S. to publish its outcome measures and now publishes outcome books for every department, comparing itself to the best available benchmarks.

The Cleveland Clinic further changed the way it delivers care by developing Institutes to house medical and surgical specialties, working under one Institute leader and one budget. In some Institutes, inpatient and outpatient care are co-located, and Institute leadership is charged with defining what diseases and conditions each Institute cares for, developing a set of shared outcome measures for which the team is jointly accountable. Leaders also identify the skills that need to be brought together to care for patients with the sets of conditions the team treats.

Institutes are given autonomy to pursue different implementation approaches and are expected to share insights with others. For example, the Neurological Institute created a website so that others at the Clinic could learn how it was developing performance measures and decide whether to use a similar approach.

In the case of a primary care pilot program, Value-Based Care relies on a team approach that leads to a higher-efficiency practice style. Responsibilities are shared among two medical assistants and the physician, with each individual functioning to the highest level of their scope.

For each patient visit, a medical assistant brings the patient to a treatment room and obtains vitals and additional medical history information, which they immediately enter into the patient’s electronic medical record. The medical assistant remains in the room during the examination, acting as a real-time transcriber for the doctor’s notes and orders, which are also sent immediately to the physician’s inbox for verification and signature so the assistant can schedule any follow-up tests or procedures before the appointment is complete. At the same time, the physician’s second medical assistant is getting the doctor’s next patient set up in another treatment room.

Value-Based Care also helps the Clinic reduce costs. In fact, in just under a year, the direct cost per patient encounter dropped by 7.5 percent while the number of patient encounters per day increased by 16.4 percent.

The hospital lowers costs in other ways as well, such as avoiding 12,082 lab tests in 2011 and 2012 for a savings of $1.2 million and lowering the cost of lung transplant surgery by 11 percent. Cleveland Clinic also is getting patients into treatment faster, with the total number of same-day visits increasing by 14 percent and the average emergency room door-to-doctor time reduced to 17 minutes.

These strides are helping Cleveland Clinic reach the Top 20 of the University HealthSystem Consortium’s (UHC) quality index, earning UHC’s Rising Star award by improving inpatient centeredness, mortality, equity, efficiency, effectiveness and safety.

The Cleveland Clinic model is a good example of how health systems can develop evidence-based models to generate higher quality care at a lower cost. What are other hospitals and health systems doing to redesign care delivery paths? Let us know what’s working.

Categories: Cost-Savings

National Patient Safety Program Cuts Bloodstream Infections to Save Lives and Money

Central-line catheters are lifesavers. They’re used in hospitals to deliver therapy where needed and when needed for patients with a wide range of conditions.  Unfortunately, central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) result in thousands of deaths each year and billions of dollars in added costs to the U.S. health care system, according to the CDC.

But there’s one collaborative program that has cut CLABSIs in intensive care units by 40 percent, preventing more than 2,000 infections, saving more than 500 lives and avoiding more than $34 million in health care costs. The program, funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), used the Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program (CUSP) to achieve these landmark results.

CLABSIs occur when germs enter the bloodstream through the central line (also known as a central venous catheter), which is placed in a large vein in a patient’s neck, chest or groin to give medication or fluids or to collect blood for medical tests. Such lines are commonly used in intensive care units and can remain in place for weeks or months.

Thanks in part to CUSP, progress is being made to protect people from these infections. In fact, nearly 60 percent fewer bloodstream infections occurred in hospital ICU patients with central lines in 2009 than in 2001. This decrease in infections saved up to 27,000 lives and $1.1 billion in excess medical costs. More recently, CLABSIs dropped 41 percent from 2008 to 2011, up from a 32 percent reduction in 2010.

CUSP Programs, like the one used in the AHRQ project, are being used by a number of state health departments to help prevent CLABSIs. CUSP combines clinical best practices with an understanding of the science of safety, improved safety culture and an increased focus on teamwork. It helps clinicians understand how to identify safety problems and gives them the tools to tackle those problems.

“In the CLABSI project, we learned that the principles of CUSP worked to make care safer, and that clinical teams could sustain those improvements over time,” said Jeff Brady, MD, MPH, Associate Director, Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety. “The CUSP toolkit, which is a free resource on AHRQ’s web site, is designed to help clinical teams improve any safety problem, not just CLABSIs or infections.”

Indeed, Dr. Brady notes that new projects are already underway to apply CUSP principles to other safety problems like perinatal care and other settings of care, like ambulatory surgery. In addition, AHRQ is developing a CUSP toolkit module to address patient and family engagement – a resource slated for introduction in the late spring.

The bottom line: CLABSIs are preventable and we have the replicable tools we need to protect more patients.

How are health care providers in your area preventing CLABSIs? Are there steps patients can take? If so, what are they?

Will Consolidation Change Health Care for the Better?

The Cleveland Clinic believes it will, especially when it produces better patient outcomes and improves care across a spectrum of services.

As part of the recent wave of hospital mergers and acquisitions designed to improve quality and lower costs, Cleveland Clinic recently entered a long-term strategic alliance with Community Health Systems (CHS), a for-profit provider that operates 135 hospitals nationwide. While the two organizations will remain independent, they will “both [remain] committed to discovering novel strategies to improve care, reduce costs, enhance access to health care services and develop new approaches to care delivery.”

In discussing the alliance, CEO and President of Cleveland Clinic, Delos M. Cosgrove, MD, notes that thriving in today’s health care environment will require new ways of doing things. He calls medicine a “team sport.”

We couldn’t agree more. All effective strategies that successfully remove obstacles to quality, affordable care should be on the table in today’s health care environment. The Cleveland Clinic’s consolidation with CHS will lower expenses and improve the quality of care by:

  • Improving patient outcomes and reducing costs by creating a framework that enables physicians to share best practices while capturing, reporting and comparing data.
  • Enhancing quality and data infrastructure by assessing CHS-affiliated hospitals and applying the expertise of the Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute to related programs.
  • Sharing best practices and creating synergies that encompass telemedicine initiatives, second opinion services for physicians and patients, complex care coordination and other areas in care and cost containment.

We look forward to watching the alliance between Cleveland Clinic and Community Health Systems as they continue to reframe health care.

Have you seen examples of successful collaborations that are improving access to care and/or reducing health care costs? Share them with us.