When leaders at Henry Community Health began their telehealth journey in mid-November 2019, they planned to take things slowly. Staff spent early 2020 configuring and testing telehealth functionality, with plans to gradually release it to their community hospital and 15 clinics over several years.
Then COVID-19 emerged and going slow was no longer an option.
“March 2 was our first successful video visit, just testing it in one office,” said Sherry Willis, clinical applications manager. “By March 18, that office was totally live for scheduled patient appointments.”
Less than a month later, more than a third of Henry Community Health’s daily patient encounters were virtual.
"We went from thinking we had a three- to five-year timeline to about a one-month rollout," said Mike Spencer, chief information officer.
His team drastically accelerated their plan by delivering equipment and one-on-one training to more than 80 providers.
"We felt like if we were going to be successful, training was important," said Willis. "We came up with a schedule for visiting each office. In a week, we trained the majority of our primary care providers. Then we rolled it out to specialty offices over the next week or two."
Virtual visits empower Henry Community Health providers to deliver care that might otherwise be delayed or overlooked, as COVID-19 transmission concerns confine patients to their homes.
"We expanded telehealth beyond regular office visits to include other services," said Willis. "Our diabetic educator, behavioral health providers, lactation consultant, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists are all doing virtual video visits."
Willis and her team supported each provider through their first couple remote patient appointments. Their efforts helped ease providers' initial anxieties and allowed many to embrace the power of virtual care.
"Now providers ask us, 'Is this going to get taken away once we're through COVID-19?'" said Willis. "Some might have been reluctant before to give it a try, but now they realize it's doable and they appreciate the benefits of video visits."
That’s just one reason the organization’s leaders think expanded telehealth is here to stay — in the COVID-19 era and beyond.
"We believe the world has changed, and this technology will change how people receive care," said Spencer. "Patients are starting to feel comfortable with the process, and I think we'll continue seeing a portion of people who prefer to be at home."
In addition to addressing COVID-19’s challenges, Henry Community Health looked for opportunities to redefine health care and reinvent patient engagement. In only six weeks spanning March through mid-April 2020, Henry Community Health saw more people self-enroll in its patient portal than in the previous two years combined. Leaders see the trend as a sign of bigger changes to come.
"After the last couple months, our providers and patients are more open to what health care will look like and where it might go in the future," said Willis. "We had ideas before as to how we'd like to see virtual care delivery proceed, and we've already surpassed them. Now we're resetting our vision."
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