One of the few silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic might just be the expansion of remote access to doctors and hospitals. It’s already happening here in Saratoga County. Back in March, Saratoga Hospital began to roll out its own telemedicine program, offering online consultations to outpatients who didn’t require an in-person visit. In just three weeks, digital doctor visits have soared, quickly becoming the new norm at the hospital.
“I would say that 75-percent of our volume is telemedicine now versus office [visits],” says Julie Demaree, a clinical informatics and documentation specialist at Saratoga Hospital. In response to COVID-19, Demaree has worked to create a comprehensive telemedicine program across the entire Saratoga Hospital system. “We set up [telemedicine] capability just last May,” she says. “But this crisis has launched us into the necessity of using telemedicine.”
In its first full week of expanded operations, Saratoga Hospital’s telemedicine program saw just under 300 outpatients using the online interface. In the second week, that number shot up to 700, and last week the hospital hosted around 1,700 virtual visits through the newly expanded program. That’s nearly 3,000 remote patients in just three weeks. With the click of a button online, patients are able to schedule telemedicine appointments or even change their in-person visits to a video consultation.
However, telemedicine is about more than just scheduling digital doctors appointments. Saratoga Hospital’s telemedicine program has also expanded visitation options and even helped open up communication between doctors and patients’ families and loved ones. “We have iPads set up in the patients’ rooms to facilitate a continuous conversation between them and their families,” says Demaree. “That’s a challenge that family members had even pre-COVID, where they wanted to be part of the conversation with a medical provider.” The telemedicine program is also a way for nurses and doctors to check in on patients, via those aforementioned iPads, without having to risk infection or waste time donning all the vital personal protective equipment (PPE).
There have been a few pleasant surprises to the telemedicine system as well. “Even though there can be barriers, it removes a lot of barriers for patients,” says Demaree, “barriers such as not having childcare or not having a mode of transportation to get to the doctor.” Several of Saratoga Hospital’s offices have actually reported better patient compliance under the telemedicine program, because patients aren’t late or missing needed appointments. Furthermore, doctors are able to get a real glimpse at patients’ medicine cabinets, and dietitians can see and review food labels in peoples’ actual homes. “Sometimes video consultations at home can provide more info than we were getting from in-office visits,” says Demaree. “I think patients have been surprised and really appreciative.” In fact, Demaree says that the biggest challenge so far has simply been technological—in other words, patients figuring out how to turn on their microphone or activate their camera.
While telemedicine programs aren’t anything new, New York State previously had much more stringent limitations on when they could be used (usually only when a patient had no way of physically getting to the doctor). “With the pandemic, the insurance companies have lifted all their prior criteria [on telemedicine],” says Seana Mosher, a physician assistant and part of Saratoga Hospital’s Inpatient Transition Program team. “In many ways, it took a pandemic for people to change the way they looked at healthcare delivery.”
As for whether or not increased telemedicine will become the new normal after COVID-19 has faded or been vaccinated into extinction, Mosher says that she’d be all for it, but it’s not up to her or even Saratoga Hospital. “It’s been beneficial for so many people,” she says. “But it will all be dependent on how the insurance companies decide to handle this down the road.”