- With a flu epidemic in full swing, Michigan’s Spectrum Health system is using a direct-to-consumer telehealth platform to reduce the strain on local emergency departments and doctor’s offices and improve treatment options and outcomes for patients.
The Grand Rapids-based health system, comprising 12 hospitals and 180 ambulatory sites, has seen average daily traffic on its MedNow platform surge from 73 patients to 106, according to Joseph Brennan, the telehealth program’s senior director.
On one recent day, he said, the platform treated 127 people, all within 20 minutes of first contact, using a base of practitioners that could treat four or five at one time.
“We had never seen 100 patients in a day prior to this,” says Brennan, who helped move the MedNow platform in-house a little over three years ago after contracting with MDLive to get the service up and running in 2014. “But we were ready. We’ve been very successful so far.”
Health systems all across the country are resorting to a variety of telehealth and mHealth methods to tackle the flu epidemic and reduce the strain on brick-and-mortar facilities – especially ERs, where a wait for a doctor can now take four hours or more. Some are deploying mobile health units to hard-hit or distant communities, while others are launching telemedicine-based triage centers in clinics, medical offices or even parking lots.
Many more are using on-demand telehealth platforms – either self-branded like MedNow or vendor-based like American Well, Teladoc, MDLive and Doctor on Demand - to diagnose and treat people online. Employing either virtual visits or store-and-forward services, they’re treating consumers faster, allowing them to fill their prescriptions and recover at a quicker and more convenient pace.
Massachusetts-based American Well, one of the largest telehealth vendors in the US, repoirts a more than 300 percent increase in flu diagnoses on its platform since December, a much higher percentage than in 2017 and a rate that is significantly outpacing all telehealth visits. As a result, several health system partners, including the Cleveland Clinic, Nemours Children's and Tampa General Hospital in Florida and Beaufort Memorial in South Carolina, are taking extra steps to raise awareness of telehealth as an alternative to the hospital or doctors office.
In South Carolina, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), a nationally recognized telehealth center of excellence, is operating flu clinics and encouraging patients to use the e-visits platform through their MyChart service.
"Like many areas across the county, the Lowcountry is experiencing higher than usual influenza cases this season, which has caused a significant number of patients in our Emergency Departments," MUSC officials said in a press release. "To alleviate the high patient influx, MUSC Health has implemented influenza clinics and telehealth services for our patients."
In Indiana, Indianapolis-based Franciscan Health is seeing an increase in telehealth traffic, especially from people with health conditions that would be exacerbated by the flu and for whom a trip to a crowded ER or doctor’s office might be dangerous.
And in Texas, dozens of schools are using telehealth kiosks to connect sick students to doctors and nurses at Children’s Health.
"This is a much better option than going to the emergency department for a non-emergent visit," Dr. Stormee Williams, a physician at the Dallas-based hospital, told the local NBC TV affiliate. "These are the kinds of modalities that can help us to contain those illnesses, to help prevent the spread of disease. And, like we said, in the emergency room, it's filed with sick people, so we don't want other healthy people, including parents, to get sick while waiting in the ER."
“Since we are increasing the number of patients that have medical conditions, primarily heart and lung, our telehealth utilization has increased probably about 20 to 30 patients,” Brenda Schoenherr, the administrative director of home health and hospice for Franciscan’s Visiting Nurse Service, told Indiana Public Media.
At Spectrum Health, Brennan - while on his way back from a healthcare conference in Florida in which he showcased MedNow’s success - says low-acuity primary care is a natural fit for telehealth.
“Patients want this,” he says. “Patients see the convenience, the choice, the access to care on their own terms, and this is what they want. This is the future of healthcare.”
While some health systems around the country have been caught by surprise by the numbers of patients seeking help, Brennan says Spectrum Health planned its strategy well in advance.
“We had already anticipated 125-150 patients a day” during the height of the flu season, he says. “We knew what to expect and how to react.
That strategy focused on an extensive consumer and digital marketing campaign aimed at connecting with people ahead of time, before they got sick, and telling them about MedNow. The campaign included social media posts, paid searches for keyword traffic, even plumbing data on the Salesforce platform to identify those most likely to become sick and sending them targeted e-mails.
And while it’s too early to show off statistics, Brennan says the health system’s ERs have seen a corresponding decrease in traffic, thanks to the telehealth service. This means patients who do visit the ER are being seen and treated more quickly and efficiently, and ER staff aren’t pushed to exhaustion trying to handle the traffic.
With recent surveys indicating consumers aren’t trying telehealth in large numbers, Brennan says it’s important to build on the momentum that MedNow has seen over the past year. He wants to continue to get the word out through social media channels, and he wants to expand the platform for uses beyond low-acuity primary care.
Looking back over the past month, Brennan says he’d do just one thing differently.
“We didn’t need to be so high-alert in our approach,” he says. Everyone made a big deal out of the increase in traffic, he says, when they should have taken a business-as-usual approach and treated it like just another day in the telehealth office.
“This is the way it should be,” he points out.