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Spectrum Health Takes its Telehealth Platform In-House

The Michigan-based health system had contracted out its virtual care services, but last month took over most of the platform. It's part of a growing number of healthcare providers who are choosing to go it alone.

By Eric Wicklund

- When Spectrum Health jumped into the virtual care arena in 2014, administrators realized they would need help developing the platform. They turned to MDLive, a Florida-based online care provider.

A little more than a year later, they’re going it alone.

Last month the 12-hospital, 184-site network based in western Michigan launched its own MedNow platform, bringing a three-pronged virtual care program under its own virtual roof. The service, run through the health system’s affiliated health plan, Priority Health, offers on-demand and specialty care, as well as home monitoring tools.

“We’re leveraging our own providers, who know their patients and want to take responsibility for their care,” says Tracey Burke, MedNow’s director.

Burke and Joseph Brennen, MedNow’s director of operations, are quick to point out they weren’t displeased with MDLive – the company still manages Spectrum Health’s pediatric care services and any telehealth services that cross state lines. But the health system wanted to integrate its care offerings, linking this new platform that extends beyond the physical walls of the hospital and clinic with its evolving patient-centered medical home program and its Epic EMR platform, as well as the health system’s own text messaging program and online patient portal.

“We’re caring for their total life, not just that one encounter,” says Burke. “We’re meeting the needs of our patients all the time. It’s comprehensive care.”

As virtual care platforms take a hold in health systems throughout the country, it’s interesting to see how they evolve. Some health systems are contracting out the whole platform to a third party, content to have someone else manage the particulars. Others are going for a hybrid approach that parcels out certain services – like emergency care – while keeping others in-house, or offering a branded platform that’s run by a telehealth provider but managed by the health system. Others are developing their own platform.

Spectrum Health is part of a large – and growing – percentage of providers who are moving into telehealth gradually, working first with a vendor to establish the platform, then gradually moving to their own system. Experts estimate as many as 40 percent of health providers who have virtual care networks have followed this route, and they expect that number to grow as the technology becomes more ubiquitous and the Affordable Care Act mandates a more comprehensive approach to care management.

Brennen and Burke say telehealth technology has improved to the point that health systems can take it on themselves now, rather than contract out. “It’s become seamless, efficient and low-cost,” says Burke. “Our doctors are amazed at what they can do themselves with video.”

Brennen says it took the better part of a year to prepare the health system – from the providers to the patients – for this shift. The doctors and nurses were skeptical at first, until they got used to the technology through repeated dry runs. Focus groups, surveys and questionnaires helped patients find their own comfort level.

“You do it in stages,” says Burke, who expects Spectrum Health to assume control of pediatric telehealth services early next year and eventually take over care of patients across state lines, as soon as they can get the licensure issues worked out.

She and Brennen also see the health system using wearables and other patient-facing health and wellness monitors to connect those patients with care providers when and where they want and need to be connected. And she expects the virtual care platform to expand, offering behavioral health and specialty follow-up services to patients in their own homes.

And, she says, targeting a growing demographic of older patients who want to stay at home.

Brennen says when Spectrum Health officials first envisioned the platform, they expected that it would be used primarily by young, tech-savvy consumers who are too busy to visit the doctor or hospital and just want to connect via their laptop or tablet. But the average user is a 54-year-old female, he says, and 93 percent of the patients are connecting via their smartphone.

“We’re meeting the needs of our patients,” says Burke. 

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