Lessons Learned by an Early Telehealth Adopter

By Deb Muro, Chief Information Officer at El Camino Health

When the need for telemedicine surged during the pandemic, many healthcare leaders probably thought the same thing: Oh no! But for people like me who have been promoting telemedicine for years, it was more like: Finally!

My interest in telemedicine goes back to my days as a nurse, when I was asked to lead the implementation of a new bedside computer system to help care for inpatients. I was captivated by technology’s potential to assist clinicians in their daily work. I eventually left nursing and became a healthcare tech professional, and in 2014 joined El Camino Health, a system that includes two not-for-profit acute-care hospitals in Los Gatos and Mountain View, California.

For the next five years, my teams worked with various departments to introduce telehealth initiatives, such as remote monitoring and psychiatry consults. We launched video visits, too—but up until early 2019, those only represented 1 percent of all clinic visits in the industry.

I was eager to do more with telemedicine and started digging into what it would take to expand our video-visit platform. I saw video visits as a way for physicians to ensure that patients were doing well between episodes of care. It took time to convince our organization of this new tool's capability, and progress was slow. In late 2019, we selected a vendor who could staff and provide on-demand video visits 24/7 and help us deliver video visits with physicians in our clinics. That hybrid approach was important to us. We want to be available for patients 24/7, but we cannot staff a service like that from within. 

The pandemic hit just as we were planning our launch. One day early in the crisis, my team was asked to ramp up a telemedicine offering to assess patients exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Thankfully, our vendor was able to do it in a matter of days. 

The service met a vital need for people in our community who needed care during a stressful time. Soon we added primary-care and even specialty-care video visits. Now patients can use their computer, smartphone, or tablet to schedule a virtual appointment with one of our providers, or see a provider on demand. 

At El Camino Health, in Los Gatos and Mountain View, CA, we were fortunate to have a telemedicine partner in place just before the pandemic began. But we were even more fortunate to have selected a vendor who could help us ensure the platform’s long-term growth and stability.

If you are choosing from the hundreds of telehealth vendors out there today, I recommend looking for one who:

  1. Is fully dedicated to healthcare, and not serving multiple industries. A single focus on healthcare means more knowledge, expertise, and specialization.
  2. Offers a product that will fully integrate with your health system’s electronic medical record system. This will allow doctors to conduct the visit, enter notes, view documentation, and see other data related to the patient’s medical care, all in one place. 
  3. Has the resources to invest in new technology to improve the patient and provider experience. The need for technical innovation in this space is limitless. Our vendor recently introduced enhanced audio/visual capabilities and technology to improve the platform’s reliability. And they are planning to roll out language translation and closed-captioning features soon. 
  4. Offers a flexible product that accommodates different patient needs and preferences. For example, our patients can access a video visit using MyChart or our vendor’s portal. They can schedule with their own doctor or request an immediate visit with one of our vendor’s providers, and they can pay for their visit online.
  5. Will grow with you. We’re working hand-in-hand with our vendor to fill gaps in care through telemedicine. For example, our team recently identified a need for 24/7 digital lactation consults, and our vendor is helping us with this need. 

A strong telemedicine program is a competitive advantage in today’s ever-changing healthcare marketplace. No matter which vendor you choose, remember: the time you spend thinking about innovation will pay off in the long term. You are essentially predicting what will happen in the future. When it arrives, your organization will be ready to meet needs that others can’t.