The COVID-19 pandemic caught healthcare providers worldwide off guard. Almost immediately, doors shuttered to most in-person non-COVID care. Harris Health System, like many providers, quickly ramped up its virtual and telemedicine program—most recently completing nearly 565,000 virtual care visits since the start of the pandemic.
Virtual care has become an important tool to safely treat patients and contain the spread of COVID-19. Since mid-March 2020, Harris Health has enlisted 1,600 medical providers through home or more than 26 medical locations in its virtual care program—today averaging 1,750 virtual visits a day.
For Roshandra Lewis, virtual care has not only helped keep her 74-year-old mother safe and healthy during COVID, but it has also helped her keep up with her busy job. As her mother’s primary caregiver, she’s tasked with organizing every outing for her mother who suffers from dementia and has become quite frail over the years. She estimates most in-person doctor visits usually take 3-4 hours and puts a huge dent on her work schedule.
“I hate moving her because prolonged movements are uncomfortable for her,” Lewis says. “I have to physically move her to get her ready for the doctor’s office and it’s always a huge process. I love virtual care because it really benefits her and elderly patients like her.”
Dr. Hammad Mahmood, medical director, Casa de Amigos Health Center, Harris Health, and a board-certified physician in geriatric medicine, is the primary care physician for Lewis’ mother. He’s happy to see her virtually and schedule her for occasional in-person visits.
“Seeing her virtually ensures I can keep track of her health and make sure she’s healthy and staying safe,” he says.
Mahmood, also an assistant professor, Family Medicine Department at Baylor College of Medicine, believes virtual care will be around long after the pandemic. He believes virtual care is crucial to maintaining continuity of care for elderly patients.
“This is the future,” he adds. “To see this being offered to our patients is amazing. We’re essentially providing modern day house calls for patients.”
Today, more than 70,000 unique patients like Lewis’ mother have used Harris Health’s dedicated virtual web portal and technologies like computers, smartphones, telephones and tablets.
“While many other health systems offer telemedicine, Harris Health focuses our programs on the medically underserved and aims to eliminate the social disparity in this field,” says Leslie Ferrell, administrative director, Virtual Care, Harris Health. “We offer virtual solutions in primary care, as well as options in all of our specialties. The demand in our communities for access to care is increasing and through virtual solutions, we are reducing the requirement to receive that care by physically coming into our facilities.”
After logging into a secure web connection, staff and medical providers are able to virtually consult with patients for various issues, ranging from COVID-19 concerns to appointments in more than 20 specialties including primary, physical therapy, obstetric/gynecologic and behavioral health.
“We’re improving our population’s health through programs at their convenience, instead of ours, particularly when our patients may struggle with transportation, child care or taking time off of work,” Ferrell adds. “Our goal is to expand our solutions to focus on our homeless and chronic disease patients this coming year.”
The team admits virtual visits aren’t for everything—patients needing lab work and those who take certain medications still require in-person visits.
“Providing alternative means to connect, in the face of the pandemic, expanded our capabilities to engage with patients to provide high quality care,” says Bill Walker, associate administrator, Business Operations and Strategic Initiatives, Ambulatory Care Services, Harris Health. “The success with telehealth over the past year has shown that our patients and care teams are embracing the future of hybrid healthcare—incorporating in-person and telemedicine services to best serve our community.”
Patients really seem to like virtual care evident by an 83% positive rate reported recently after patients completed a satisfaction survey.