HOUSTON (April 20, 2020) — As the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease wreaks havoc on our community and healthcare system, telemedicine and virtual care have quickly become important tools to safely treat patients and contain the spread of infection at hospitals and health centers. In response, Harris Health System has conducted nearly 20,000 virtual visits since mid-March using its enhanced Virtual Care Program.
Harris Health offered some telehealth care before the pandemic, but it has quickly become a preferred option for its patients. Telehealth is the use of technology to deliver health services or information by using a computer, smartphone or tablet. This care alternative can direct people away from hospitals and health centers as providers treat the influx of coronavirus patients.
Harris Health built its current virtual visit platform in six days.
“Usually something like this takes a year or more to plan,” says Bill Walker, associate administrator, Business Operations and Strategic Initiatives, Ambulatory Care Services, Harris Health System. “While we’ve had some bumps to overcome, our initial focus was to keep patients safe and at home.”
Harris Health offers four types of virtual visits—video visits through MyHealth (the system’s patient internet health portal), video chat visits, telephonic visits and e-visits through the MyHealth (Epic MyChart) app. E-visits allow patients and providers to interact in a written format through MyHealth.
Today, virtual visits are being done across the health system at 38 locations by 756 medical providers. The team now averages about 1,750 visits a day.
Armed with a laptop, computer, smartphone or tablet, providers are able to virtually consult with patients for various issues, ranging from COVID-19 concerns to established appointments for primary care.
“This is the wave of the future,” says Dr. LaResa Ridge, interim medical director, Virtual Care, Ambulatory Care Services, Harris Health System. “To see this being offered to our patients is amazing. We’re essentially providing modern day house calls for patients.”
The team admits it can be challenging to take care of a patient virtually.
“Doctors lose the ability to touch,” Walker says. “However, many have come up with creative questions to help diagnose the patient.”
Ridge recently had a patient perform a series of movements during a virtual visit to see if the patient’s lymph nodes were swollen or bothersome.
“We’re teaching the patients a lot,” she says. “I’ll ask them to rub their neck or ask them if they feel bumps or to pull their ear to help find out what their concern is. Virtual care forces us to think outside the box to diagnose patients.”
Initially, all patients who were referred to virtual care were being triaged through Harris Health’s Ask My Nurse (a dedicated nurse help line) and the patient appointment center that used an epidemiology screen for patients with COVID-19 symptoms that qualified them for a visit. In the future, patients will be able to schedule their own virtual visits.
“Patients have been incredibly receptive,” Ridge says. “Telemedicine and virtual care is going to become a regular offering to our patients. Right now, it’s keeping people at home and safe, but in the future it will help those who may have transportation issues and aren’t able to get to one of our health centers for their appointment.”
While virtual visits aren’t for everything—patients with chronic diseases and those who take certain medications will be required to have in-person visits—at this time it’s crucial to keep as many patients home during the pandemic.
“The support for this program has been tremendous,” Ridge says. “From nursing to information technology, pharmacy and administration—this is something we needed to get done and we did. The necessity of this service during this pandemic drove us to accomplish great things.”