Doctors’ appointments go virtual

Telemedicine services are growing and projected to continue — even after COVID-19.
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Spectrum Health saw a massive increase in telemedicine visits during the spring, but virtual visits are expected to continue. Photo by iStock

Need to see a doctor? Sore throat? Fever? Sprained wrist?

If you’re like many patients, you’re not checking in at a medical office, you’re pulling out your phone or tablet and visiting virtually.

It’s easy on the wallet, with a maximum charge of $45. If you get referred to your primary care physician or an ER, there’s no cost for the visit.

Anyone in Michigan is eligible to participate.

Spectrum Health launched on-demand virtual visits in 2015. From 2015-2019, providers conducted more than 80,000 high-tech appointments.

When COVID-19 shut down many routine office visits, Spectrum Health virtual visits ramped up from a daily average of 98 in early March to more than 2,000 per day by mid-April.

“We truly saw a massive spike in virtual visits,” said Michelle Rizor, principal strategic partner for Spectrum Health Virtual Health. “With COVID, what a wild
time it was for everyone.”

Spectrum Health offers two types of virtual visits:

On-demand visits — usually within an hour — for low-threat issues like colds, cough, flu, allergies, bites and stings, sleep concerns, nausea, heartburn and the like.

Scheduled video visits, which are more like a traditional appointment with your own doctor or specialist — only conducted online. You video chat over an electronic device from the comfort of your own home instead of traveling to the provider’s office.

During March and April, Spectrum Health trained more than 1,600 providers and 1,200 clinical staff to provide video visits in anticipation of extended office closures due to COVID-19. Prior to that, only 175 providers were well-versed in video visits.

“Offices are opened back up, but (virtual visit) volumes are still up,” Rizor said. “The
team did an amazing job. It was a great learning opportunity and a wonderful way to continue serving our community. Even after offices opened, a lot of people were trying to reduce their exposure. We’re doing a lot of work now on how to keep our providers engaged as we continue to build out these services.”

The uncertainty, isolation and world-turned-upside-down feeling some are experiencing during this global pandemic also can lead to depression and other behavioral issues.

Rizor said virtual behavioral health appointments are available for patients 18 and over.

“We know behavioral health is a huge concern and a challenge at least 20 percent of the population faces,” she said. “If you can see a provider in the comfort of your own home, maybe that reduces barriers.”

Elizabeth Suing, PA with Spectrum Health, who helps lead virtual health, said patients can simply download the Spectrum Health app for Android or i-devices, or visit the website from a regular browser.

“Most patients use the app because it’s really simple and easy to use,” Suing said. “Just select an on-demand video visit if you want to be seen right away for an appointment.”

Then, you’ll describe your issue/what you want to be seen for and your insurance information. Typically, a medical assistant and provider will be with you in less than 10 minutes, according to Suing.

The provider then conducts a virtual physical exam. Depending on your symptoms, he or she may ask you to put your camera and light up to your mouth and open wide, palpate your sinus, feel for enlarged lymph nodes or tug on your ear for pain.

“There are many things we can glean from a virtual physical exam,” Suing said. “We can listen for breath sounds, examine a twisted ankle. Do they have a rash? We can
see things like pink eye and cellulitis.”

Virtual medicine encompasses more services than people may think, including birth control consultations, smoking cessation (both prescription and non-prescription) and pre-travel consultations for patients traveling abroad, including recommended immunizations and malaria medications.

Interestingly, the scope has broadened during COVID-19.

“With people staying home, not sharing germs, we saw an increase in back pain,” Suing said. “People are working from home and maybe not sitting in their chair properly, or they’re working in a bed. Everything has changed. Every day we’re exploring the
opportunities and innovations.”

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