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How healthcare organizations ramped up 24/7 telehealth access, in just 36 hours

By Carley Thornell | May 21, 2020

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Indianapolis-based OurHealth — which partners with employers to offer on-site and near-site primary care clinics — is no stranger to using third-party solutions integrated with their proprietary technology and athenahealth electronic medical records system.

But what Chief Information Officer Sherry Slick isn’t used to is having just a weekend’s turnaround to install and prepare to go live with new solutions. That was the case when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and she and Director of Solutions Engineering Barton Bridge had to find a new telehealth partner. 

OurHealth had another “boutique” choice that they’d investigated for a couple of their 40 clinics across the Midwest and Southeast. But racing against time and the spread of COVID-19 was crucial, and Slick and her team needed to scale their entire organization quickly. They found a solution — one that had other benefits in addition to telehealth capabilities — with athenahealth Marketplace telehealth partner Qure4u.

“This is something we’ve been trying to get done for a long time. But there’s nothing like a pandemic to drive innovation,” said Slick. She’s always appreciated athenahealth’s open APIs and flexible solutions available through the Marketplace, which features ready-made solutions that are quick to install and train on.

But this time, speed was more important than ever.

"There’s real value with an open Marketplace, with these ready-made integrations and products. That really gives you scale and speed, where you otherwise wouldn’t have it — being able to leverage that is a pretty sweet thing. Ours is a pretty incredible story."

Up and running in a weekend

That story includes OurHealth being able to converse immediately several times with Qure4u on a Friday. The team at athenahealth flipped APIs within hours to allow Qure4u’s implementation team to work around-the-clock over the weekend and get the solution configured for all OurHealth providers. OurHealth was able to retool their self-scheduling options over the weekend, too, so patients could make appointments through a proprietary patient portal or via phone call starting Monday. Within a week, all providers were trained on the new care option and patients now have the option of virtual, telephonic, or in-person appointments.

Comparatively, other third-party solutions can take three months for exploratory, implementation, training, and go-live phases, said Bridge. OurHealth’s approach was to first get providers training quickly first, an experience that was fairly seamless for doctors by sharing documentation through a common learning management system. The rest of the wellness staff – including health coaches, behavioral specialists, and certified diabetes educators – had staggered telehealth onboarding. At the end of April, telehealth visits accounted for 14 percent of all appointments, but Slick expected that to increase with the widened access.

OurHealth has seen a few other benefits to telehealth adoption for providers and patients alike. Qure4u has pre-visit features like consent form signatures and co-pay collection capabilities that can save time for each. Providers have a streamlined experience because telehealth links are automatically sent to patients once appointments are scheduled (versus manual sends required when using some other platforms). And a browser-based telehealth option, versus one that’s solely mobile like some of the others OurHealth considered, gives everyone options.

A solution for every size

Despite having a smaller patient population — both literally and figuratively — Bright Stars Pediatrics said Qure4u was essential in maintaining the health of the practice and their patients. When her colleagues at other practices used solutions that kept crashing, they “gave up on telehealth altogether,” said Dr. Karen Pilgrim-King. She installed and was able to use Qure4u in 36 hours, with no assistance needed from IT staff. Bright Stars has since transitioned one-third of appointments to telehealth.

“Even for the smallest practice with zero IT support, I would say if you’re trying to get a telemedicine platform going, it would be Qure4u just because of the level of engagement,” explained Pilgrim-King. She said her small Texas practice was able to pivot quickly thanks to ongoing support from her athenahealth customer service manager pointing her in the direction of the Marketplace. Parents of her patients are receptive, and Bright Stars used athenahealth’s text message outreach campaign to proactively send out instructions for downloading Qure4u.

Although telehealth isn’t an option Pilgrim-King had considered previously, she’s now open to taking mental health appointments or consults with rural patients thanks to technology that’s removed time-crunch barriers. “I really do enjoy that I can sit in my office and have a nice, long conversation with the parents. I can even do it during my lunch hour. It certainly takes some of the time constraints out,” she said.

What’s next with telehealth platforms

OurHealth has a goal to transition 25 percent of all appointments to telehealth now and post-pandemic. Slick says that having a relationship with a partner that listens to feedback from their development staff and “responds rapidly” to product enhancement requests has helped maintain the business and offer patients care at a crucial time when they need to feel connected.

“We want to give our patients choice and fully intend for this to become part of our fabric, going forward,” she said. Like Bright Stars, OurHealth is eyeing telehealth as a strategy to further expand services to remote populations.

Their clinic model may even transition to a hybrid model for providers. “We would like to see the ability for every provider to kind of weave in and out, throughout their day, see a virtual patient, see one in-clinic, see another virtual, and make that as seamless as possible, give our patients options,” said Slick. “Our goal is to continue to use virtual care in new and exciting ways.”