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Virtual Care's Momentum Builds

By Topic: TechnologyInformation Management


Perhaps one of the most-talked-about aspects of IT during the pandemic has been virtual health. It seems nationwide use of telemedicine has been ignited, knocking down previous obstacles such as clinician resistance and patient reluctance with it.

In May 2020, 46% of consumers were using telehealth to replace cancelled in-person healthcare visits, compared to 11% in 2019, according to a McKinsey & Company survey. More than 75% of survey respondents reported being interested in using telehealth going forward. 

Many healthcare organizations, it seems, are making their plans accordingly, expanding their virtual medicine programs. Below are two examples:

Altru Health System, Grand Forks, N.D 
Altru Health System, Grand Forks, N.D., an integrated rural system serving parts of North Dakota and Minnesota with a 257-bed hospital, a 45-bed specialty center, and several regional clinics and physician practice locations, has experienced a significant uptick in virtual health visits during the pandemic. The organization had used telemedicine for years prior to COVID-19, helping it connect to and provide specialty care to rural facilities in its region. 

The organization completed approximately 11 virtual visits in 2019, according to Mark Waind, executive vice president/CIO, Altru Health System. At press time this year, it has done around 6,500. Before COVID-19, the health system was primarily focused on the “facility-to-facility” telemedicine connection, providing specialist coverage to its region, according to Waind. It had approximately 184 providers providing those services. Now, it has all of its 250-plus providers set up to provide “direct-to-consumer” virtual visits.

“Prior to COVID, we struggled to get all of our providers onboard and willing to embrace direct-to-consumer virtual care,” Waind says. “With COVID, we had patients who didn’t want to come into our facilities and providers who wanted to use whatever was available to connect with their patients. COVID has put everyone on the same page, and it allowed our IT staff to rapidly deploy our virtual functionality.”

All signs point to further expansion of the technology at Altru. “The plan is to not let off the gas pedal as we move forward but to continue to integrate virtual health in all the plans and services with the consumer as the focus,” says Altru President Steven Weiser, MD, an ACHE Member.

The bulk of the health system’s providers are set up to deliver virtual care, covering all of the organization’s primary care and nearly every specialty. Priorities going forward include extending virtual health hours of operation, keeping convenience for patients in mind. Offering virtual visit appointments before and after the “normal workday hours” for patients and their families is a priority, according to Waind.

Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Fla.
Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Fla., a large public health system with six hospitals and several other facilities operating throughout south Florida, has experienced a similar increase in telehealth visits. 

“Before COVID, we would probably count the amount of telehealth visits at about 2,000 for the year,” says Jeffrey Sturman, senior vice president/CIO, Memorial Healthcare System, and an ACHE Member. “In the past three to three and a half months [at press time], we’re approaching 60,000 visits.”

Physician participation and enthusiasm has been a big contributor to the health system’s ability to ramp up virtual visits. In March and April, when many of the organization’s hospitals and physicians offices were closed, physicians were trained on telemedicine so they could be redeployed to do virtual visits. 

“The number of virtual visits we have seen would not have been possible if our medical staff had not embraced it,” says Aurelio Fernandez III, FACHE, president/CEO, Memorial Healthcare System, Hollywood, Fla.

The health system expects to see more primary care, urgent care and some follow-up visits shifted to virtual over time, while most care with specialists will continue to be in person, according to Sturman.

Collaborative partnership with providers has been an asset as the system seeks to build on its IT capabilities, including in the telehealth arena. A recently formed telehealth committee, led by Fernandez, brings clinicians together with executives to discuss where the organization is today and where it wants to be in the future. 

Fernandez says he has also communicated to the health system’s board that the organization will need to shift some of its capital dollars previously allocated for bricks and mortar to technology to expand telehealth and other IT capabilities.

“We are convinced that the consumer has finally realized the benefits of technology when it comes to medicine, and with everything going on, the ability to provide access to the consumer—not having to park, not having to leave the house and get the same level of service—is the future of medicine,” he says.

Jessica D. Squazzo is a Chicago-area based writer and editor.


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