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Highlights | Telemedicine soars

  • UW Medicine has reached a major milestone of one million telemedicine visits.
  • Expanding telemedicine services has increased patient access across providers and specialties.
  • Telemedicine provides advantages to providers and patients alike.

In December, UW Medicine reached a major milestone of one million telemedicine visits. Before Seattle became the epicenter of the early COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., UW Medicine had a three- to five-year plan to build a comprehensive telemedicine program. In response to the pandemic, this multiyear plan was accelerated to a lean three months. Volumes increased from 160 telemedicine visits in February 2020 to over 33,000 in May 2020. Today, telemedicine continues to expand. Over the past year, 2,631 providers held virtual visits with patients. The youngest patient seen was a newborn, while the oldest was 109 years old.

It took many teams to reach this major milestone, including clinicians, clinical leaders, compliance, Information Technology Services, the Contact Center and many more.

Telemedicine improves patient access to care

Telemedicine closes the miles between provider and patient.

“I have patients who live far away, such as the Olympic Peninsula, Gig Harbor and Eastern Washington,” says Eugene Yang, MD, cardiologist and medical director of the UW Medicine Eastside Specialty Center. “Many of my cardiology patients are older and often need family members to drive them to the clinic. Telemedicine allows us to triage those who really require an in-person evaluation versus those who do not.”

Telemedicine also allows providers to customize patient interactions.

“Having the ability to serve patients in-person or virtually allows us to customize patient care, which matters, especially in the world of mental health,” says Jennifer Erickson, MD, psychiatrist at UW Medical Center and UW Medicine Primary Care. “Telemedicine gives them more options for support.”

Patrick Hains, a social worker, emphasizes that this alternative method for engagement helps his clients.

“I see patients with severe mental illness. It’s hard for them to come in, hard if they’re deeply depressed or agoraphobic. With telemedicine, they can work up to an in-person visit. We start off on the phone, cameras off, and then work up to just me being on camera, and then them joining me on camera, and then to an in-person visit,” says Hains.

Both Erickson and Hains note that the ability to have a view into their patients’ home environments gives the providers a wider perspective on their patients’ surroundings, which can help strengthen the provider-patient relationship and contextualize the care they provide.

Erickson notes an unexpected benefit of telemedicine.

“I see cats everywhere now!” she says, “When you work with patients who are in their homes, you see them in their environment, with their pets — so many cats walk across the screen — and that gives the patient comfort.”

Patients agree.

“I’m grateful for having this technology to meet with my doctor,” writes a UW Medicine patient in a Telemedicine Survey. “For someone like me, a truck driver with little time for an in-person appointment, telemedicine is an amazing alternative.”

The flexibility and lifestyle accommodation that telemedicine provides are benefits for patients.

“I love the video sessions,” another patient reports. “It expands the list of doctors that I can see. I am temporarily disabled and I would not feel comfortable driving back and forth to Seattle for routine appointments. It also allows me to take appointments on short notice.”

Telemedicine benefits the workforce

Telemedicine is not only a benefit to the patient; it also provides benefits to the providers and staff.

“We have a limited number of exam rooms,” says Yang. “I spend part of my Fridays doing telemedicine from my home, which frees up an exam room for another clinician and a patient who requires or prefers an in-person visit.”

Hains appreciates the flexibility that comes with some telemedicine roles.

“I work from home one day a week, conducting client appointments through telemedicine,” Hains says. “Instead of time spent commuting to the office, I’m able to take my son to school.”

Telemedicine can increase healthcare equity

Some of our most historically marginalized populations have the most barriers to care. Telemedicine has the potential to decrease some of those barriers. UW Medicine continues to expand access:

• Video interpreters are available for all telemedicine visits.
• Telemedicine patient instructions and instructional videos are available in many languages.
• Staff are equipped and able to help instruct a patient on how to connect to a video visit.
• For patients without access to a computer, device, or broadband, UW Medicine offers phone visits.

These additional access improvements are making progress. For example, nearly 400 of this past year’s telemedicine visits have been with nonbinary patients, who experience more healthcare access disparities than cisgender individuals.

A look toward the future

Telemedicine will continue to be a key option for patients and UW Medicine is looking for new ways to utilize it. For instance, UW Medicine virtual primary care opened in August, offering on-demand virtual care seven days a week. The digital health team is also looking at ways telemedicine can help patients throughout the WWAMI region connect to the high-quality specialists at UW Medicine through partnerships with rural hospitals. In the future, they expect telemedicine visits to continue to rise — meeting our patients where they are.