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Sparrow Health System uses pandemic lessons to expand its virtual care strategic plan

Bill Siwicki

September 28, 2022

Today, the Michigan health system is seeing more than 1,000 e-visits per month, making greater use of its patient portal and successfully addressing the behavioral health caregiver shortage.

Sparrow Health System in Lansing, Michigan, began developing a virtual care strategy in October 2019 – well before COVID-19 struck – with the hope of leveraging the technology as a tool to support patient care and the organizational strategy, rather than as a stand-alone strategy in and of itself.

Sparrow's initial goal was to launch on-demand, virtual urgent care to increase access and provide another front door into the health system. It intended to go live in July 2020, using Amwell as the technology and services vendor for virtual urgent care for an estimated 1,500 visits in the first year.

Telehealth plans quickly changed
But then, COVID-19 hit, and plans quickly changed.

"With most of our practices closed in late March of 2020, we needed an immediate solution that couldn't wait until July," said Patrick Sustrich, director of retail healthcare at Sparrow Health System. "What we thought would take months took us days, and we leveraged the capability of our Epic EHR to stand up on-demand and scheduled video visits using Zoom for Healthcare and our own providers.

"In the first month, we surpassed our one-year goal of 1,500 virtual visits – telephone and video," he continued. "The benefit of staffing this ourselves was that it allowed our providers to access the patient's medical record, document directly into the chart and accept all the same insurance we do for in-person visits."

Once the practices reopened, most thought they would resume normal operations and transition all their visits back to in-person. But this did not happen.

Patients enjoyed virtual care

"Not only was COVID not over, but patients enjoyed the convenience of virtual visits, and providers saw the value of this tool," Sustrich said. "Through August 2022, we have successfully completed more than 144,000 virtual visits.

"Additionally, our health system has embarked on a strategy to tend to a situation that has plagued providers since the inception of the patient portal – the overwhelming number of medical advice requests," he continued.

In fact, more than 16,000 medical advice requests are received each month. This uncompensated care takes hours out of a provider's day, and a solution was badly needed. Sparrow took a multi-tiered approach to resolve this issue.

"The first approach was to leverage Epic to triage medical advice requests to the correct location – one direction for billing/finance, another for medication refills and another for scheduling questions/issues," he explained. "This significantly reduced the number of medical advice requests to the provider.

"Next, we launched both patient- and caregiver-initiated e-visits in an effort to convert messages requiring medical decision-making into billable visits," he said. "Monthly reports were generated to providers showing them precisely the opportunity to convert medical advice requests into e-visits."

More than 1,000 e-visits per month

Although caregiver-initiated e-visits have only been available since Q2 of this year, Sparrow is averaging more than 1,000 e-visits per month. Additionally, a pilot is being conducted to evaluate the impact of using a centralized nurse triage process to resolve minor patient issues, freeing up providers' time to increase access.

"Our main hospital campus struggled with LOS and a lack of beds, as most hospitals did during COVID," Sustrich recalled. "We needed to leverage the bed capacity of our community hospitals. We quickly looked for a telehealth solution to prevent unnecessary transfers and keep care local.

"iPads with a Zoom video link provided patient-to-provider and provider-to-provider connections," he continued. "FCC funding we received has enabled us to purchase five telemedicine carts from Amwell, allowing an offsite provider to control the camera's pan/tilt/zoom features and access a digital stethoscope."

Sparrow intends to place these carts at all five offsite ED locations. In the future, it plans on expanding specialist resources to provide care across the health system. Specialists such as those focused on pulmonology, behavioral health and infectious disease could never be supported at one community hospital, but collectively, and with the help of virtual care, these specialists can serve the entire health system, he stated.

Staffing a 24/7 platform

"Our current 24/7 on-demand platform's wait time is under 19 minutes, with an average completion rate of more than 80%," Sustrich reported. "It is rare to find a health system staffing its own 24/7 platform while having access to the patient's medical record and the ability to document within the EHR.

"Many others have contracted this service out to a third-party vendor, which I believe sacrifices patient care quality and safety," he added.

Additionally, Sparrow providers staffing this platform respond to e-visits from patients without a primary care provider, conduct COVID follow-up calls, and perform QR validation in the MySparrow Portal for patients who have received the COVID vaccination outside of the health system. After-hours coverage (8 p.m. – 8 a.m.) is conducted by three ED locations offsite from the main campus.

"Another metric I am very proud of is our MySparrow Portal activation rates," Sustrich noted. "Early in the pandemic, it became apparent that patient success with our virtual health services was high in patients who already had a portal account.

"In response, a campaign across Sparrow's entire medical group was launched to increase MySparrow Portal activation rates," he continued. "Patient tutorials were created, and the campaign began within ambulatory practices; each practice was given a goal, implemented best practices and shared a monthly scorecard."

Caregivers hitting their goals

Caregivers were rewarded with gift cards when their practice hit their goal, and the hospital's foundation funded the gift cards. Within two years (April 2020 to March 2022), Sparrow saw a 152% increase in its active MySparrow Portal users (146,768 to 369,916) and increased the percentage of patients with a portal account from 55.2% to 78.8%.

The challenges Sparrow faced were similar to those of most other health systems, and this caused Sparrow to build the plane while in flight and struggle with training and experience gaps, Sustrich said.

"Our assets included an engaged leadership team that supported our virtual health strategy and was willing to invest in it," he said. "We also leverage Epic and its ongoing development of virtual health tools. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the resilience of our caregivers."

Sustrich points to various signs of success:

• More than 70,000 successfully completed video visits in the first two years.

• More than $8 million in video visit revenue.

• 40,000 hours of patient drive-time saved.

• A 10% increase in the SUS Score.

• Patient satisfaction went from 80% to 89%.

• A 20% shift from telephone to video visits.

A major FCC telehealth grant

"Sparrow had the top FCC grant application in Michigan and was among 62 healthcare facilities nationwide that received funding from the FCC in Round 2 of its COVID-19 telehealth grant program," Sustrich reported. "The $586,000 was used for ambulatory virtual health hardware deployment, a virtual behavioral health program to expand access and cart technology to increase communication and improve care to our community hospitals out in the region.

"Hardware purchased included 115 docking stations, 140 Bluetooth digital scales, 350 headsets, 230 monitors, 115 and keyboards with mouse," he continued. "This standardized virtual health equipment across our health system makes video visits accessible to a larger number of providers, thereby positively impacting patients and increasing access to care."

Because of the nationwide shortage of psychiatrists and behavioral therapists, patients find it more difficult to access mental health services.

"A portion of the FCC money purchased 40 iPads housed in five emergency rooms and throughout each inpatient floor at the main hospital to access virtual behavioral health services," Sustrich said. "Additionally, psychiatrists at Sparrow's St. Lawrence campus can virtually connect with patients in the adult psychiatric, geriatric psychiatric and outpatient units through an audio/video connection.

"This will decrease wait time and increase access to behavioral health services," he concluded. "Additionally, bed capacity will increase from 60% to 85% occupancy."

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
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