Once COVID-19 hit a little over a year ago, many doctor’s offices started offering online appointments to keep patients safe.
That practice is working so well that many will continue it after the coronavirus is gone.
“We’ll stick with it. It’s much more convenient” for the patient, said Laurie Isenman, office manager at Member Plus Family Health in Bainbridge Island. She added it will depend on if insurance companies continue to cover it.
Dr. Blaine Crandell is seeing about half of his patients each day via the computer.
“We do as much as we can to keep people out” of the office because they have a lot of traffic providing about 100 COVID vaccines every other day, Isenman said.
She added they have a number of medicare patients who are elderly that are not comfortable online.
Online or in person, she said they use a “concierge medicine” business model, booking long appointments to make sure patients feel like they’ve been taken care of.
Elsewhere, Rhys Haydon, a family medicine advanced registered nurse practitioner working at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health Clinic, was working alongside nine other health care providers.
With a daily schedule of 18 appointments from among the 900 patients on his “panel,” the 35-year-old Gig Harbor native had his hands’ full dispensing healthcare guidance at the Port Orchard clinic.
But suddenly the pandemic swept into the Northwest, and health care staff were forced to wear facemasks and, in some cases, close clinic doors. Managers struggled to react to the looming specter of COVID restrictions and abrupt new protocols.
While medical clinics and hospitals drastically curtailed non-emergency patient visits and focused much of their attention on the virus, system providers turned to a relatively new format in dispensing their medical services – virtual appointments.
Virginia Mason escalated its telehealth capabilities to facilitate more than 425,000 virtual clinical and urgent care visits beginning a year ago in March. According to VMFH officials, appointments conducted virtually range from annual check-ups to pre- and post-surgical check-ins.
“We’ve been able to provide good care to patients, on their terms,” Haydon said. “We are able to meet with people, wherever they are.”
And he’s met with patients remotely from just about anywhere — some have driven over to the side of the road in order to meet with him online.
While COVID has been the catalyst of change leading to a surge of virtual medical visits, Haydon and others see it becoming a lasting component of provider-patient interactions. “Setting up a virtual visit is a simple process,” he said.
‘Virtual’ makes sense
As the need for social distancing fades along with the virus, the benefits of virtual visits will continue to make sense to patients who otherwise would need to take several hours away from their work schedule to drive to their appointment or deal with assorted transportation or childcare hassles.
In most cases, Haydon said, a virtual appointment offers just as good or a better experience than an in-person visit. And patients agree. Data from VMFH’s parent company says that 83 percent of patients in 2020 stated their virtual visit was “just as good, or much better” than an in-person visit.
That patient confidence is reflected in national statistics showing nearly 30 percent of health care visits are now conducted electronically. The increase also has been driven due to the relaxation of some rules and requirements by state and federal regulators that previously made it more difficult to use telehealth technology.
Before the pandemic, telehealth accounted for 3 percent of patient visits, according to a Minnesota Medical Association survey. During the last week of March 2020, however, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 154 percent increase in telehealth visits, which also cost less.
Haydon said there are some limitations to virtual visits — a dermatologist, for example, might need a closer, more precise view of a patient’s skin lesion than what a computer lens could provide. But the nurse practitioner said virtual visits have worked best for patients who have an established relationship with their health care provider, and where hands-on care, such as physical exams or blood draws, was not needed.
The virtual visits also have been extremely popular in mental health and substance-use treatment, with many health care organizations reporting higher volumes of therapy visits because people are less inclined to feel embarrassed.
Another large provider in Kitsap County, Peninsula Community Health Services (PCHS)has also seen the benefits of virtual visits.
“Its become one of the great many tools that medicine has now,” Chief Medical Officer for PCHS, Dr. Regina Bonnevie-Rodgers said. “I really think that virtual visits have a definite role in clinical visits but there are challenges with that.
PCHS’s mission is to provide accessible and affordable medical, dental, mental and behavioral healthcare regardless of the patients ability to pay. Many of PCHS’s patients are from under served parts of the community and may not have access to a computer, smart phone or reliable Internet making virtual visits challenging.
“For the future I think virtual visits will be a complimentary aspect of our visits. Understanding that some people do not have access to really good Internet or may not be as savvy with technology needs to be taken into consideration,” Bonnevie-Rodgers said.