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Spectrum Health’s DTC Telehealth Service Tackles the Polar Vortex

The Michigan health system's MedNow telehealth platform saw a 60 percent surge in traffic during the three-day weather emergency, when people were told to stay indoors. Officials say it proved its value as an emergency healthcare resource.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- When the Polar Vortex swept across the Midwest at the end of January, Spectrum Health’s direct-to-consumer telehealth platform became an emergency healthcare resource for residents trapped inside by the bitter cold.

The Grand rapids, Mich.-based health system’s MedNow connected care service saw 423 virtual visits during the three-day weather crisis, during which residents were advised to stay indoors and schools, businesses and primary care offices were closed. That number included 134 sessions on January 30, the highest in the five years that Spectrum has offered the service. And no on waited more than an hour to be treated.

“We were a strategy for emergency preparedness,” says Joseph Brennan, the telemedicine program’s senior director. As such, he says, MedNow not only treated patients with non-urgent care needs – the platform’s typical patient – but those seeking primary and emergency care because their PCP offices were shuttered or it was too cold to go to the hospital.

“We were seeing different competencies with a direct-to-consumer tool,” Brennan says. “This was a good test for us.”

Spectrum Health, which comprises some 12 hospitals and 180 ambulatory sites, launched the platform in 2014 with help from MDLive, then brought it in-house in 2015, stocking the service with its own cadre of providers. Since then, MedNow has averaged more than 100 visits a day, offering treatment for a wide array of non-emergency conditions within 20 minutes of first contact.

READ MORE: Harvey’s Aftermath Brings mHealth, Telehealth to the Forefront

But while the system had weathered the traffic spikes of flu season – it saw 127 on one day in January 2018, the biggest number until this year – the Polar Vortex was a whole new animal. The cold snap killed dozens across the Midwest and sent thermometers plunging into the negatives, at one point hitting -38 in Illinois. With brisk winds, wind chills dropped below -60.

City and health officials in many locations across the region prepared ahead of time, shutting down non-essential services and telling people to stay in their homes. In Grand Rapids, Spectrum Health’s leadership brought Brennan and his team into the conversation.

“We were brought in the day before (the Polar Vortex hit) to see if we could handle the increase in capacity,” says Brennan, who conducted a workshop on DTC telehealth at Xtelligent Healthcare Media’s 2018 Value-Based Care Summit on Telehealth in San Diego. “We were able to reach out to our resources and put a few more people on the bench. It worked very well.”

Overall, Brennan says, MedNow saw a 61 percent increase in traffic during those three days, compared to the same three days the previous year.

Telehealth and mHealth have come to the forefront in recent years as avenues for emergency and ongoing care during a disaster, ranging from hurricanes, floods and forest fires to mass shootings, explosions and riots. Telemedicine vendors and health systems offer free access to their services through mHealth apps, offering not only emergency care but primary and chronic care, pharmacy services and especially mental health counseling.

READ MORE: Rural West Texas EMS Providers to Try Out a Telehealth Backpack

Brennan says Spectrum officials studied how the platform was used during the Polar Vortex to get a better idea of how telemedicine might be deployed in future emergencies. While noting that MedNow was called on to provide some primary and mental health care services, he said the health system also had to make sure it maintained a steady network of on-call doctors, most of which were working from home and subject to the same power outages and loss of broadband that everyone else in the region was experiencing.

Two things worked in their favor, Brennan said. Because it’s been around for a while, MedNow is a known commodity in the community. And because Spectrum Health brought its telehealth crew into the room before the crisis hit, it could spread the word that MedNow would be an available resource in the coming days.

“It was good that we had time to prepare,” he says. “People now know that we are there and we are established. Awareness is the last great barrier” to a DTC telehealth program.

Brennan also compiled statistics to prove the platform’s value during the emergency. Through patient surveys and claims data, he says, MedNow saved more than 5,000 miles that its patients would have traveled had the gone to their doctor’s office or the hospital (16 patient treated during the three days said they would have gone to the Emergency Department). And over those three days, the service saved roughly $52,000 in emergency care costs.

Brennan says Spectrum will continue to evolve its DTC telehealth platform to meet new demands and markets, whether it’s as an emergency resource or a means of delivering more chronic care and mental health services.

“That’s what we’re moving toward,” he says. “There’s a lot more we can do here.”

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