Practice Management

COVID-19: Telehealth at the forefront of the pandemic


COVID-19 Home Care

Providence rapidly deployed home monitoring for nearly 2,000 positive or presumptive COVID-19 patients. Those symptomatic, clinically stable patients are given a thermometer and a pulse oximeter, and are monitored from home by a central team of nurses and physicians using the Xealth and Twistle programs.

Providence is evaluating expansion of home monitoring to other diagnoses, including higher acuity conditions.

COVID-19 Acute Care

TeleTriage expedites the triage of suspected COVID-19 patients and reduces the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by 50% per patient per day. To date, TeleTriage has resulted in the conservation of more than 90,000 PPE units.

TeleHospitalist services expanded from traditional night coverage to caring for patients in COVID-19 units around the clock. Currently, there are 25 telehospitalists who practice both in-person and virtual medicine.

TeleICU offers remote management of more than 180 ICU beds across 17 hospitals from two central command centers in Washington state and Alaska. The services include night-time intensivist and ICU nurse coverage, including medication and ventilator management, and family conferences. COVID-19 increased the demand for TeleICU, with anticipated expansion to more than 300 beds.

Core TeleSpecialty services include TeleStroke and TelePsychiatry across 135 remote sites.

Ambulatory Virtual Visits

Providence launched the COVID-19 hub microsite to help educate patients by providing accurate and timely information. A chatbot named Grace helps screen patients who are worried about COVID-19. Grace also suggests next steps, such as a video visit with a patient’s primary care provider or a visit using Express Care/Virtual team, a direct-to-consumer service available to patients within and outside of the health care system.

In less than 2 weeks, Providence enabled virtual visits for more than 7,000 outpatient providers, with more than 14,000 alternative visits now occurring daily. This has allowed primary and specialty providers to continue to manage their patient panels remotely. The number of Express Care/Virtual visits increased from 60 to more than 1,000 per day.

BHC Expansion

In the effort to improve care for its caregivers, Providence launched a behavioral health concierge (BHC) service that offers employees and their dependents virtual access to licensed mental health professionals. Over the last half of 2019, BHC provided more than 1,000 phone and virtual visits, depending on the individual preference of patients. Notably, 21% percent of users were physicians; 65% of users were seen the same day and 100% of users were seen within 48 hours.

COVID-19 increased demand for services that initially started in Seattle and rapidly expanded to Montana, Oregon, and California.

Outside Partnerships

Providence has established partnerships with outside facilities by providing services to 135 sites across eight states. COVID-19 accelerated the employment of new services, including TeleICU.

Telemedicine at Sound Physicians

Sound Physicians is a national physician-founded and -led organization that provides emergency medicine, critical care, hospital medicine, population health, and physician advisory services. Five years ago, Sound launched a telemedicine service line. I spoke with Brian Carpenter, MD, national medical director for TeleHospitalist Services at Sound, to learn about his experience implementing Telehospitalist programs across 22 hospitals and 22 skilled nursing facilities.

Dr. Brian Carpenter, national medical director for telehospitalist services at Sound Physicians

Dr. Brian Carpenter

Prior to COVID-19, Sound offered a spectrum of telemedicine services including night-time telephonic cross coverage, as well as video-assisted admissions, transfers, and rapid responses. In 2019, Sound Telehospitalists received 88,000 connect requests, including 6,400 video-assisted new admissions and 82 rapid responses. Typically, one physician covers four to eight hospitals with back-up available for surges. The team uses a predictive model for staffing and developed an acuity-based algorithm to ensure that patients in distress are evaluated immediately, new stable admissions on average are seen within 12 minutes, and order clarifications are provided within 30 minutes.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an urgent demand for providers to support an overwhelmed health care system. Without the traditional barriers to implementation – such as lack of acceptance by medical staff, nurses and patients, strict state licensing and technology requirements, lack of reimbursement, and delays in hospital credentialing – Sound was able to develop a rapid implementation model for telemedicine services. Currently, four new hospitals are in the active implementation phase, with 40 more hospitals in the pipeline.

Implementing a telemedicine program at your hospital

In order to successfully launch a telemedicine program, Dr. Carpenter outlined the following critical implementation steps:

  • In collaboration with local leadership, define the problem you are trying to solve, which helps inform the scope of the telemedicine practice and technology requirements (for example, night-time cross-coverage vs. full telemedicine service).
  • Complete a discovery process (for example, existing workflow for patient admission and transfer) with the end-goal of developing a workflow and rules of engagement.
  • Obtain hospital credentialing/privileges and EMR access.
  • Train end-users, including physicians and nurse telepresenters.

Dr. Carpenter offered this advice to those considering a telemedicine program: “Telemedicine is not just about technology; a true telemedicine program encompasses change management, workflow development, end-user training, compliance, and mechanisms for continuous process improvement. We want to make things better for the physicians, nurses, and patients.”

Telehealth is offering support to health care providers on the front lines, patients in need of care, and health care systems managing the unprecedented surges in volume.

Dr. Farah is a hospitalist, physician adviser, and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. She is a performance improvement consultant based in Corvallis, Ore., and a member of The Hospitalist’s editorial advisory board.


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