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Winter is Coming: Prepare for Cold and Flu with Virtual Care

For most people, the end of summer is characterized by back to school ads, discounted swimwear and the promise of crisp autumn air. In healthcare, it’s more than stacks of new notebooks – it’s time to plan for managing cold and flu season.

Cold and flu season can strike anywhereEach year, health systems and providers brace themselves for an onslaught of stuffy noses, hacking coughs and spiking fevers. And this year, as staffing plans are made and vaccine doses ordered, the question on everyone’s minds will be, “What do we do if we see a repeat of last year?”

If you work in healthcare (and unless you were, say, living off the grid in the Alaskan tundra last winter) a repeat of the 2017-2018 flu season likely strikes fear—or at least concern—into your heart. While not as terrifying as the white walkers in Game of Thrones, the onset of cold and flu season requires similar preparation to withstand a viral invasion. So, how can health systems deal with the visit volumes, the potential for infection to spread in waiting rooms, and overwhelmed clinic staff?

Virtual Care Can Help

Having a virtual care service in place can help mitigate some of the challenges that are part and parcel with cold and flu season. It’s not the only answer, certainly, but virtual care adds real value where it counts.

Support Vaccination

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” as the saying goes. It’s no secret that the best way to reduce influenza cases is vaccination, and health systems often have well-developed strategies for promoting annual influenza vaccination. A virtual care service can add value by creating an additional channel for patient communication.

Providers can remind patients to get their flu shots during video visits. Health systems can include a note about getting vaccinated in patient education materials. And, Zipnosis customers can use their virtual care platform to incorporate flu shot reminders into their virtual visit (a feature successfully deployed during last summer’s measles outbreak in Minnesota).

Manage Provider Time

Here’s where virtual care really shines. A store-and-forward / asynchronous virtual care model enables providers to diagnose and treat patients in a fraction of the time as an in-person visit, as noted by our VP of Customer Success, Catherine Murphy, a couple weeks ago.

In a look at data from six customers over the course of last flu season (October 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018), the average provider work time per asynchronous virtual visit was just shy of 2 minutes and maintained high quality standards. During that time, these six customers completed close to 12,000 visits, amounting to less than 340 provider hours. For comparison, 12,000 in-person visits at 15 minutes each would total about 3,000 hours. On average, virtual care saved each of these health systems 440 hours of provider time. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Mitigate Waiting Room Infection

One of the biggest challenges about cold and flu is that they are just so darn infectious. A study in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found greater than 3% increase in influenza-like illnesses in children and family members within 2 weeks of annual wellness visits.

Hospitals, health systems and clinics have a variety of tactics to help stem waiting room infection – from handing out face masks to regular sterilization procedures. Virtual care can be added to the list. By offering a remote option for treating highly infectious conditions like influenza, patients don’t have to come into their doctor’s office for treatment. Plus, patients with common conditions like urinary tract infections or pinkeye can also get treated at home, lessening the chance they contract an influenza-like illness at the doctor’s office or urgent care.

Take the 2018 On-Demand Virtual Care Benchmark Survey

Now’s the Time

This isn’t Game of Thrones, and we aren’t facing an influx ofwhite walkers, but winter is coming. Getting a virtual care service launched now will go a long way to help health systems manage the impact of cold and flu season on their providers and patients. Starting now will mean your virtual care service is up and running when it counts. Pair that with some smart marketing tactics, and you’ve got winning combination to combat the coming cold and flu season. 

 

The Virtual Care Insider: New Features for 2018

It’s hard to believe, but we’re exactly 2 months in to 2018. At Zipnosis we have a lot of big things coming for the year, so keep your eyes peeled, and Virtual Care Insider is no exception! Coming in 2018 you’ll see new features, new authors, and new topics, as well as the insights and thought leadership you’ve come to expect. As the virtual care industry continues to evolve, so do we!

New Features for 2018:

Under the Hood

Under the Hood is our new feature giving you a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes to support the Zipnosis platform. From clinical to engineering to account support, get a peek behind the curtain and learn what goes into creating and maintaining and supporting the best darn virtual care platform out there.

Get to Know Zipnosis

One of the things we’re proud of is our amazing team, and we think it’s sad that most of our customers and prospects don’t get a chance to meet the talented group of people responsible for building and maintaining the Zipnosis platform. This new feature will give you a chance to get to know some of the people who work behind the scenes.

Trend Watch

Trend Watch will be a deep dive into one of the key industry trends, giving you more detailed information and a better idea of the impacts to virtual care and health systems. We’ve already had our first Trend Watch edition (by Dr. Lisa Ide, focusing on employers’ use of virtual care as an employee benefit), and you can look forward to more in the coming year.

The Big Question

What is the Big Question in virtual care? That’s what we want to know! We want to provide an open forum where our virtual care experts (and we have a bunch of them) answer your burning questions about virtual care. So, don’t be shy – submit your question and have it answered on our blog.

Virtual Care and the EMR: The High Cost of Free

Do you remember the healthcare world pre-EMR? Healthcare organizations from large IDNs to individual practices were swamped by stacks of paper. There were rooms filled with files, cabinets bursting with the medical histories of every patient that sought care at a given clinic.

Pre-EMR medical files

Then came computers and along with them, electronic medical record systems (aka, the EMR). And everything changed. Digitized patient records didn’t take up any space. Health systems, physician groups, and clinics were freed from the morass of paper they’d been buried in for years. And over time, the EMR evolved to be more than just a digital record storage solution. From patient portals to revenue cycle support and scheduling, EMR vendors expanded their offerings to support a wide variety of health system needs.

It’s no wonder then, that when health systems begin looking at a virtual care solution, the telemedicine module/functionality in their EMRs is often the first place they look. Many EMRs automatically include this online care delivery with the software. In fact, the main argument in favor of health systems using their EMR’s virtual care solution is that they’re already paying for the technology, so adding virtual care would essentially be free. But is it really?

Imagine this: Your health system is moving forward with launching virtual care. After reviewing your options, your team decided to build within your EMR. Like most health systems, you want to maximize your EMR investment – plus the promise of “free” virtual care technology is too good to pass up. Then you get started…

What Does “Free” Cost?

Technology

Turning on the telemedicine module in your EMR to offer virtual care is much more complicated than just flipping a switch. You will need to dedicate time and personnel to creating your virtual care service: developing the user experience and interface, creating and mapping the appropriate fields in your EMR, and ensuring the necessary integrations with scheduling, billing, etc. are in place and working properly. This means either diverting resources from other projects, adding to your technology team’s workload, or hiring – on contract or full-time.

The Cost:

  • Simply adding development to your technology team’s workload is the most cost-effective option, but it does cost the organization. Pushing off other projects incurs costs, and adding to the workload can stress employees causing an increase in absenteeism and even turnover.
  • Contracting with a certified consultant can run to hundreds per hour, and you may still need to dedicate person-hours toward development.
  • Hiring – whether contract or full-time – incurs costs in recruitment, training, and compensation.

Clinical Content

The technology side is just the first cost hurdle. Your virtual care service also needs high-quality clinical content, including patient-facing questions, algorithms, and clinical decision support – none of which is included in the EMR’s technology. Same as the technology, you have three choices for creating your clinical content: dedicate internal resources, purchase the clinical content, or hire a clinical informatics specialist – either on contract or full-time.

The Cost:

  • Even if you have a clinician with a background in informatics, finding internal resources means diverting clinical expertise away from patients. The cost of inexperience in this area could be even higher, with poorly-constructed algorithms producing the potential for quality concerns.
  • Purchasing content will, of course, incur the cost of the content, but it may also require additional time and energy from your technology and clinical team to customize it to your unique needs.
  • Hiring, again, means recruitment, training, and compensation costs.

Ongoing Investments

Building internally through your EMR means an ongoing resource commitment. You will need to regularly allocate resources for:

  • Technical support
  • Managing software updates
  • Clinical content management and updates
  • Service and technology enhancements (e.g., additional conditions, specialties, and services)

Opportunity Cost

Right now, health systems across the country – and likely in your market – are launching virtual care. According to a recent KaufmanHall study, 56% of health systems stated that developing virtual access points is a high priority, and 23% have a virtual care solution in place today. On top of which, telemedicine companies are growing their service capabilities and becoming more like complete online health systems than one-off urgent care centers. While you’re finding an EMR vendor-certified consultant, hiring IT and clinical staff to support virtual care, and actually building out all the individual, customized components of your service, these competitors are already marketing to and perhaps serving your patients.

Protecting patient relationships and retaining patients isn’t the only consideration. On the flip side, with virtual care proven to add patients to health systems, the time spent in building virtual care internally means the potential for losing new revenue. A recent white paper by Kurt Waltenbaugh, CEO of Carrot Health (and yours truly) found that approximately 25% of new patients from virtual care went on to have in-person care appointments within a health system. With the average annual revenue per new patient close to $3,000, this can add up to significant lost opportunity.

Finally, building your virtual care service within your EMR makes it much more difficult to change EMR vendors. You may not want to consider it right now, but if something occurs that causes you to change EMRs and you’ve built your virtual care, you lose your virtual care service, and all the time and money invested in building it.

Adding it all up

Back to our imaginary scenario: You’ve gone through your technology build, and you begin adding up all the costs associated with creating your virtual care service. All told, your free virtual care technology ended up taking more than a year and costing several hundred thousand dollars to build. During that time, your two biggest competitors launched online care services, and now have contracts with the major health plans and employers in your area. What’s more, your urgent care centers and clinics have seen a decrease in patients, as those services siphon visits away from your health system.

Having spent the past decade supporting health systems, I understand the temptation of the word “free.” Healthcare organizations are consistently asked to do more with fewer resources, and budgets are under heightened scrutiny. But look closely at any option billed as “free” – it may end up costing you more in the long run.

So, How Does Virtual Care Fit into Your Digital Health Strategy?

No one will be shocked to hear that technology is driving the future of care delivery or that staying  current with healthcare technology is increasingly vital to organizational success. But you may be surprised at the role virtual care can play in your digital health strategy.

The Digital Health Ecosystem

Being successful in this brave, new, technology-fueled world means building a digital health ecosystem. Like an ecosystem in the natural world, all components should come together to create a seamless whole. Your digital ecosystem needs to support the overall goals of your healthcare organization, including enhanced patient access, continuity of care through EMR integration, simplifying billing and claims processes, easy patient visit scheduling, and superior patient experience through portal integration.

Having a clear digital health strategy that outlines the technologies you will employ and how they will work in concert to support the continuum of care is critical. It’s easy for health systems to become so focused the individual technology solutions, they can’t see the (digital) forest for the (virtual) trees. Without that strategy, they may not realize there’s a virtual care-shaped hole in their digital health ecosystem.

Virtual Care: The Missing Puzzle Piece

It seems myopic from today’s perspective, but virtual care was traditionally viewed as a siloed point on the care continuum. In the digital age, virtual care is a delivery channel that supports a large breadth of services – from low-acuity conditions to more complex services such as chronic care management, and from primary to specialty care.

Even better, virtual care complements other elements of the digital health ecosystem, making it stronger and more unified. Paired with ePrescribing, virtual care fosters convenient, complete treatment of a variety conditions. It can be used alongside traditional telemedicine video visits to reach more of your patient base. And, virtual care gets both patients and providers comfortable with online care, making it easier to accept digital health technology in higher-acuity situations.

Your Digital Health Strategy

Health systems need to keep pace with changing consumer needs and the shifting demands of the dynamic healthcare industry. According to research firm Gartner, 40% of primary care visits will be virtual by 2018. With direct-to-consumer telemedicine companies vying for patients and growing numbers of health systems launching virtual care solutions to meet growing patient demand, virtual care is a vital piece to your health system’s success and your overall digital health strategy. Are you ready?