Telehealth and COVID: A view from the front lines with URAC-accredited UHS

| URAC Staff
doctor with images of technology

The COVID-19 health care crisis may well have sped up the age of telehealth, leading experts say.

In the Washington, DC area, for example, a recent report on local radio station WTOP noted that, “telehealth’s moment has arrived” and continued, noting that DC-area patients are “embracing virtual visits” with medical providers for evaluation, diagnosis and treatment for common ailments and even Coronavirus testing referrals.

“In the previous two weeks, we’ve seen a tremendous shift in patient care from in-person to virtual visits, which include video, phone and secure messaging,” Marisa Lavine, spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente’s mid-Atlantic region, which includes DC, Maryland and Virginia, told WTOP.

Virtual visits represented less than 25% of the group’s visits just over two weeks ago; as of March 25, they had leapt to about 60%, Lavine says.

And while the Washington, DC region has begun to feel the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, New York is currently the domestic epicenter of challenge. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on March 27th that 44,635 people tested positive in New York, up about 7,400 from Thursday, and that 519 New Yorkers have died from the virus, up from the previous day's total of 385 deaths.

However, the team at URAC-accredited UHS Virtual Health has already laid a strong foundation to offer telehealth services and diagnoses for patients - and patients are beginning to take notice, says UHS Telehealth Program Manager Sean Britton, MPA, CPHQ, NRP. He says after a slow adoption curve since its June launch, patient usage is “way up in the past two weeks. It’s been quite a dramatic increase.”

Last year, UHS became the first health care system in the nation to receive URAC’s consumer-to-provider telehealth accreditation designation for its Virtual Walk-In. The Virtual Walk-In brings care for common, minor, acute-care conditions to patients located anywhere in New York State 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., seven days a week. It is staffed exclusively by UHS providers and is powered by Zipnosis.

In addition to Virtual Walk-In, UHS delivers specialty care services to its network of primary care locations in Delaware, Chenango, and Otsego counties in New York State. Provision of specialty care services to rural primary care locations reduces the need for some patients to travel long distances to receive high-quality care from UHS specialists. UHS provided specialty care via telehealth for patients needing endocrinology or cardiology consultations.

There were several motives for pursuing accreditation, says Britton. However, the benefits of the effort were visible from the very beginning, he reports. “We used the URAC standards as part of our framework as we built out our consumer-to-provider telehealth program,” he explains. “By using the URAC standards as a guide, we were better able to determine what to focus on, such as IT security, prescribing, and patient identification security.”

UHS has ambitious – and reachable – goals to expand much of its telehealth offerings in the coming weeks and months, Britton says. “We’re scaling up other telehealth options across the spectrum of our services if patients are willing and the provider deems it appropriate,” he says.

Currently, UHS offers video visits from home or on-the-go for respiratory illnesses including COVID-19 through the UHS Virtual Walk-In. In response to the current COVID-19 situation, UHS is now offering primary and specialty care video visits to its established patients who are at home with the same platform that powers the Virtual Walk-In.

While no one yet knows if this Coronavirus-related spike in telehealth interest will continue after the crisis abates, Britton thinks it has changed the landscape permanently. “I think the current experience with telehealth will win over a lot of people who might have been hesitant to try it before,” he says. “Not every patient will want to stay with it, but I think it has definitely accelerated the adoption curve going forward.”

URAC offers Telehealth accreditation geared toward the specific needs of a variety of provider types and services offered. Learn more about our accreditation program and visit our “COVID-19 and Telehealth: What you need to know” webpage.

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