We’ve officially crossed into COVID hell in my part of the country.
The largest health system just announced the rescheduling of elective surgeries at all 15 of their hospitals, starting Monday and extending for the next eight weeks. Employed physicians have been instructed not to travel and must be ready to return to the hospital within 24 hours when summoned. Operating room capacity for scheduled cases is being reduced by upwards of 30% to allow for redeployment of staff to other areas. Another system has redeployed their operating room nurses to the medical/surgical floors and has brought in travel nurses to staff the ORs, but not everyone can find enough travel nurses even if they can afford them.
I imagine this is what it felt like to be in New York City in the spring. It doesn’t feel like we learned anything from their suffering because we’re now officially in the same boat.
Our urgent cares have tried to reduce volumes by limiting the number of COVID tests we do for patients who are asymptomatic, but it’s not much help since we’re in a phase where nearly every patient has symptoms. Schools are moving from in-person and hybrid models back to fully virtual, and parts of the state are headed back towards stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders.
My staff is working harder than ever, but they are most definitely at the breaking point. Sometimes I feel guilty about being only part-time for in-person care, and then I remember the work that I’m trying to do with my clients to better manage patients without the need for in-person encounters and their associated exposures.
Here are my free consulting tips for practices trying to figure out how to manage patients in the outpatient space more efficiently, since we’re all trying to do more with less. These are things that I have been recommending to practices for years, but for some reason, they still are trying to do things the hard way:
If your system has technology to help with refill management, use it. If you don’t, consider a solution like Healthfinch to help tame the beast. If you don’t have technology, consider creating a policy that allows delegates to manage refills on behalf of physicians.
I still work with a lot of physicians who can’t let go of the idea that only they can manage refills, and their inboxes are flooded with refill requests. These are usually the same people who aren’t giving refills to their patients to last through the next scheduled visit, let alone to last through the year. I recommend that physicians who struggle with this idea start with one or two health conditions where medication refills are the lowest risk, and let their staff dig in. Make a list of the criteria for refills – this may include a visit within the last 365 days and no overdue labs – and start letting your support staff support you.
I’m a big fan of the “touch it only once” mantra. Use your technology to help you sort your inbox and then work it deliberately by section. If you only have a minute or two, select a lab result to manage or a refill request to manage, not a patient phone call. Don’t go through your inbox looking at things and trying to re-prioritize it over and over. You’ll waste a ton of time along the way.
Set up dedicated time during the day to manage the inbox, or plan to work it before or after seeing patients. Even if you’re used to calling your patients with results, consider leveraging the patient portal or secure texting if patients have opted in for these services. They’re much more convenient for patients and will save you time.
Invest in technology that can free your staff
Practices are still using humans to call patients and ask them COVID screening questions. If your organization has the ability to screen patients through a portal or other tools, use it. If not, there are many cool technologies out there such as Asparia that not only manage appointment reminders, but can help provide a safe arrival experience and triage patients who may need to avoid coming into the office.
You should also maximize the use of digital check-in or other workflows that might be available in your patient portal. For my most recent new patient visit, I uploaded copies of my insurance card and photo ID on my phone before even walking in the door, resulting in a contactless visit. When you save those minutes for your staff, it adds up, and those resources can be redeployed for use with patients who need real-time or face-to-face contact, or to better support you as you embrace telehealth visits.
Don’t be afraid of telehealth visits
With everyone being concerned about COVID and the availability of inexpensive devices for home biometric assessments, you would be surprised how many patients can provide a full suite of vital signs for a telehealth visit. Blood pressure cuffs and thermometers are plentiful, and pulse oximeters are becoming a regular part of the home first aid kit for many families courtesy of Amazon, Target, and other major retailers. Of course, this may vary depending on the patient population served, but I think physicians might be pleasantly surprised if they ask about access to these devices. If the patient doesn’t have one, they might have a neighbor or family member who does.
I’ve been practicing telemedicine for a while now and I’ve found it useful for picking up factors that I might not pick up at an office-based visit, such as fall risks in the home. I’ve also seen full ashtrays on the coffee tables of patients who claim to have stopped smoking, so you never know what you might find. Learn the rules for telehealth billing for your specialty – many specialty societies have published cheat sheets for their members.
Leverage your staff for telehealth visits
Staff can meet with the patient prior to the visit and update histories, document vital signs, flag medications for refill, etc. All too often I see the physician trying to do all these tasks even though they would have allowed support staff to do them in the in-person world. Sometimes the technology doesn’t make this easy, but there are ways to work around it to maximize the physician’s time.
Many of these elements go back to something that is so hard for some physicians to learn, and that is that they need to run their practices with everyone working to the top level of their licensure. If you’re lucky enough to have a registered nurse in the office, make sure you’re truly using them to deliver nursing services and not to do things that could be done by a medical assistant, patient care tech, or receptionist. I’ve been hearing the same arguments from subsets of physicians for decades, and if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s the need to break existing paradigms because “business as usual” is effectively over.
How has your organization tried to streamline the ambulatory paradigm in 2020? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.