Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Annie Ideker could count on one hand the number of video visits completed throughout the HealthPartners care system. As of February 2021, that number reached one million and counting.
“Virtual visits were the only way people could connect with their doctors at the start of the pandemic when clinics were closed,” Dr. Ideker, Senior Medical Advisor of Clinician Experience at HealthPartners explains. “It was all about access and safety. Now, patients are demanding this option from a convenience perspective too. They don’t want to interrupt their whole workday when all they need is a 20-minute video call with their doctor. Use of this care option proves it’s working – one million patients can’t be wrong.”
Making care convenient for working parents
Alison Howard, a working mom and clinic assistant at HealthPartners Clinic Arden Hills, is one of those one million patients. Having access to a 20-minute virtual visit during her workday is a lifesaver.
“At the start of the pandemic, we were taking hundreds of calls a day to schedule drive up COVID testing,” says Howard. “It was exhausting and intense. I couldn’t easily leave work to bring my own children to a doctor’s appointment. That’s when we started virtual visits and those really helped. They are much more convenient for working parents like myself.”
According to Howard, virtual care also prevents kids from being out of school for long periods of time. "It's a huge relief to not have to drive back and forth and fight traffic," she says. "It creates less stress and makes for happier parents too."
Transforming care overnight
While telehealth isn’t a new concept for HealthPartners, it wasn’t as widely used pre-pandemic. The way to connect was mostly via phone. Many clinics found the existing video technology challenging and clunky, according to Dr. Ideker.
That prompted Dr. Ideker and a team of multiple clinicians in various roles to quickly find a more stable and user-friendly video visit app. Knowing they had to move fast, the team selected an app and began the training process. Within the next 96 hours, they trained 2,000 clinicians on how to use the platform. And only six weeks later, video visits reached a peak usage of nearly 50% across the care system.
Removing barriers to mental health care
This rapid transformation was good news for employers, many of whom were concerned about supporting the mental health of their workforce. With mental health concerns skyrocketing, access to video visits immediately removed barriers to care.
Dr. Josh Zimmerman, Senior Medical Director of Behavioral Health at HealthPartners, worked with Dr. Ideker to get the video visit platform up and running. Dr. Zimmerman treats patients with eating disorders at HealthPartners’ Melrose Center in St. Louis Park.
“Most people expressed feeling less stressed about getting to their virtual appointment or being late,” says Dr. Zimmerman. “They’re not worried about traffic, which has resulted in very few no-shows.”
Easier care access, leading to less stress, is also helping some employees who don't work from home during the pandemic. They feel more comfortable talking about their mental health while at work, Dr. Zimmerman says.
“In the past, we tried embedding therapists at workplaces, but people were not as comfortable with the idea of being seen to get mental health care at their job,” he describes. “But they are okay with closing the door of their office or going out to their car to have a telehealth video appointment. Many of my patients schedule their video calls during the workday, popping into their car when they have a break or in their closed office. It’s much more private and efficient.”
Treating many more conditions virtually
And there are many conditions other than mental health, according to Dr. Ideker, that people can manage virtually. People may not realize everything you can do over a video call, she says.
“Much of what we do doesn’t require an in-person exam,” Dr. Ideker explains. “For a lot of the care we provide, it’s talking – it’s a conversation about a patient’s diagnoses or health history. It’s planning the next steps in terms of further evaluation or treatment. That’s all possible over video.”
HealthPartners lists the types of conditions it can effectively treat over a video visit. Beyond mental health, the list includes common colds and injuries, allergies, skin issues, prenatal and postpartum care, chronic diseases, and follow-up appointments in specialty areas.
“If patients have high blood pressure, hypertension, or diabetes – they can gather data to manage their chronic disease from home,” says Dr. Ideker. “You can buy a blood pressure cuff online to check your blood pressure all day long. All I need to know are those readings to make decisions on your treatment.”
The future of virtual care
Moving forward, Dr. Ideker sees telehealth as an important foundation of modern health care. Currently, even with in-person care options now available, 22% of all clinic visits are done by video throughout HealthPartners.
“We are pushing our policymakers to reduce health-care disparities by making access to virtual care easy, and readily available for everybody, including those in rural areas,” she says.
“Virtual care is here to stay. It helps us see more patients and attract talented clinicians who are interested in flexible opportunities that offer more work-life balance. It’s already helped us launch other convenient care options – such as mobile-check-in, used by 30% of our patients. It’s completely expanded our way of thinking and working.”