March 2020 will be a month that’s not soon forgotten. It was when the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality for many in the U.S., when schools were closed to in-person learning, and workplaces encouraged non-essential employees to work from home. Businesses and community organizations adapted to help deliver important services to the community. That was particularly true in health care.
Patients still needed to see their doctors for many reasons, most of which had nothing to do with the COVID-19 virus. At Emory Healthcare, providers, leaders and staff worked to quickly pivot the care that could be delivered to patients at home. The result was a robust telehealth experience through Emory Connected Care, which offered safe, convenient and effective care for patients and providers.
Gregory Esper, MD, MBA, associate chief medical officer at Emory Healthcare and lead for system-wide telehealth initiatives, along with VP of patient access, Sarah Kier, MBA, saw the year as one full of opportunity.
“We created and implemented a new care model for seeing patients and their families,” Dr. Esper explains. “From launching video visits on the outpatient side to the ability to link together our palliative care team caring for COVID-19 patients in the hospital and their loved ones who couldn’t be by their side, we helped facilitate access to the most compassionate, high-quality care during an uncertain — and most needed — time.”
Telehealth: A Year in Review
Telehealth was not utilized at Emory before COVID-19 mostly because of legislation and rules that facilitated its use only in specific circumstances. As those requirements were lifted and more patients were looking for ways to see their providers, telehealth visits skyrocketed.
Before COVID-19, the number of telehealth visits at Emory Healthcare was barely noticeable. By May 2020, Emory doctors and advanced practice providers completed over 50,000 video visits. The trend has maintained almost a year later: telehealth continues to be a popular option for many patients. There are roughly 40,000 telehealth visits each month — even as restrictions lift, COVID-19 cases go down and more and more individuals are resuming their new normal.
Fortunately, Emory Healthcare was well-positioned to meet this rising demand. Rob Sweeney, MBA, administrator for Emory Telehealth, had already been hard at work, alongside a team that included project manager Emma Winchell, information technology team members, and Elizabeth Krupinski, PhD, a national telehealth subject matter expert. In short order, they developed the systems and approaches necessary for a successful telehealth practice.
“At Emory, we leveraged foundational work earlier in the year and quickly ramped up during the pandemic,” Sweeney explains. “We were in constant communication, talking with providers, sharing best practices and listening to feedback on how we could improve the process and experience for our clinicians and patients.”
Communication, Sweeney believes, is at the heart of why the Emory team was so successful in meeting patient demand and providing outstanding care over a computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
Not only were patients just as satisfied with their telehealth experience as in-person visits, but providers were also able to continue care and make an impact on the health and well-being of many individuals:
- A primary care provider identified a change in a patient with lung cancer that required immediate, emergency treatment.
- A high-risk, immunocompromised patient was able to continue care at home with telehealth, which reduced her risk of contracting COVID-19 and even led to her improved health and function.
- A dermatologist was able to quickly see a patient experiencing a bad flare of his skin disease and was able to recommend a course of treatment to begin the next day.
- An oncologist was able to walk a newly diagnosed patient and his wife through treatment options and answer all their questions thoroughly and compassionately during a telehealth visit.
While telehealth visits may reduce in number as COVID-19 cases continue to drop and patients resume in-person care, experts anticipate telehealth to remain a popular health care offering. That’s true at Emory Healthcare as well.
“Telehealth offers so many benefits to our patients and providers,” states Dr. Esper. “Patients don’t need to even leave their homes — something that can be challenging for some even outside a global pandemic, like those with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or heart failure. Telehealth appointments are extremely efficient; patients wait an average of a little over two minutes to see their provider during a virtual visit. You can also involve relatives in another state to review treatment plans and recommendations.”
“You can do so much over telehealth — things that we wouldn’t have thought possible just over a year ago. It truly has allowed us to evolve and improve our offerings to our patients and the community,” he concludes.
The Future of Telehealth
Emory plans to continue to improve its telehealth offerings — even beyond COVID-19. For Dr. Esper, Sweeney, Kier, and the rest of the telehealth team, that means digging into understanding who are the right patients and what are the right situations for telehealth visits, and always asking the question, “How can we continue to refine barriers to telehealth that can hinder access to care?”
“We want to continue to improve the experience for our patients and our providers,” Sweeney says. “We’re looking at ways to make the entire process easier, starting with the moment someone wants to request a telehealth appointment.”
It’s this attention to detail and dedication that will help Emory continue to lead the way in delivering outstanding telehealth across many of their specialties.
For more information about our Emory Connected Care telehealth services, visit emoryhealthcare.org/connectedcare or call 404-778-7777.
About Emory Healthcare
At Emory Healthcare, we’re here to help you find the care you need when you need it. With virtual care options available and access to more than 2,800 doctors and 300 locations — including 11 hospitals, as well as primary care offices, urgent cares and MinuteClinics — we’re delivering specialized care across the region to help you get and stay healthy.