Attendees walk around the 2024 HIMSS Global Conference and Exhibition on Tuesday, March 12, 2024 in Orlando, Fla.

Mar 13 2024

HIMSS24: Using Telehealth and Data to Transform Access to Care

Community-oriented health systems, especially those that serve rural populations, are improving processes to connect patients with much-needed care.

About a third of Americans don’t have a primary care physician, according to a 2023 report from the National Association of Community Health Centers. Average wait times for new-patient specialty appointments have also seen an uptick in the past few years.

Healthcare organizations are trying to address these concerns by improving telehealth integrations and supporting process changes through a data-driven approach.

At HIMSS24 in Orlando, Fla., leaders of community-oriented health systems shared their experiences in transforming care delivery to better serve their patients.

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Improving Virtual Care Services to Address Health Equity

Dr. Michael Ross, system chief medical information officer at Maine-based Northern Light Health, led a session about his health system’s experiences with “tightly integrating” telehealth to improve care access for a largely rural and aging patient population.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Light Health had experimented with some virtual care services but struggled with low adoption rates and regulatory challenges. During the pandemic, the health system quickly set up telehealth services that Ross said ultimately did not address digital inequity.

“It didn’t support that lack of broadband,” Ross said, citing what he had highlighted earlier, that Maine has a significant number of households without access to high-speed internet. “It had very little friendliness in terms of provider and patient workflow.”

But, where the health system excelled was having a governance system in place for telehealth. This structure proved to be useful when looking for a telehealth partner to better integrate the service into the health system. The organization sought a solution that would be seamless for providers and patients, and would adapt with broadband needs and align with its strategic mission.

LEARN MORE: Get the details on the updated INFRAM from HIMSS.

“Integrate your workflows into your patients’ lives. Integrate your workflows into your providers’ lives,” he said.

Northern Light Health has since seen success in virtual walk-in care, scheduled synchronous visits and provider-to-provider communications. Offering virtual care services helped the health system differentiate itself in the Maine market.

However, Ross was open about the lessons learned through the health system’s journey. The virtual walk-in care was sunsetted at the end of 2023 due to in-house staffing issues. Ross recommended the use of external staffing in that case.

And though care access has opened up significantly, challenges remain with connecting homeless patients to telehealth and with expanding broadband capabilities across the state.

“The key to access is digital connectivity,” Ross said. “Digital connection is health.”

Dr. Michael Ross
Integrate your workflows into your patients’ lives. Integrate your workflows into your providers’ lives.”

Dr. Michael Ross System Chief Medical Information Officer, Northern Light Health

At a separate session, Alexandra Hunter, virtual care consultant at Detroit-based Henry Ford Health, discussed the importance of addressing equity gaps in virtual care. Just because a health system offers virtual care doesn’t necessarily mean that patients will come rushing to use it because of the myriad barriers to access.

For instance, digital literacy and the cost of internet service may be major hurdles for patients. Hunter highlighted Henry Ford Health’s work in creating a digital equity playbook — which includes resources such as Wi-Fi hotspots in Michigan and free or low-cost internet plans — and developing a program to train older adults to use telehealth technology.

She also stressed the importance of removing health system–created barriers, such as offering adequate language interpreter access and considering patient preference for telehealth options.

DIVE DEEPER: Catch up on the HIMSS24 keynote address on the future of care.

Operational Transformation Supported by Key Data

Another session highlighted the importance of a data-driven approach to organizational transformation. Aaron Kirgan, director of specialty care at Colorado-based Boulder Community Health, discussed how having better data helped improve productivity and efficiency in the health system’s cardiology practice.

“Let the data do the talking,” he said. Data helped drive conversations with clinicians because it backed up the need for process changes. “We’re not making decisions based on feelings.”

These data-driven changes helped the practice optimize clinicians’ schedules, provide timely access to care and attract new patients. Boulder Community Health expects to roll out this approach — the use of data for targeted “smart growth” — to other service lines, starting with primary care next.

Keep this page bookmarked for our ongoing coverage of HIMSS24. Follow us on X (formerly Twitter) at @HealthTechMag and join the conversation at #HIMSS24.

Photo courtesy of HIMSS

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