EHR v Covid-19. Where’s Covid now? And, patient care is already looking different!

Covid-19 RNA positive tests at UCHealth in purple

We are well into our fourth month of this pandemic. Looking at our graph, purple shows influenza B peaking in December, influenza A peaking in February, and leaving aside an artifactual spike in mid March, when we started co-testing for major respiratory viruses at the same time we started testing fro Covid-19 in earnest, all other viruses have dissipated. Then you see this impressive bump in Covid-19 illness, peaking in mid April, in our organization. Keep in mind, this is just POSITIVE tests for Covid-19 RNA in patients seen at UCHealth. Because we care for 1.9 million patients in Colorado, though, it is a reasonably large population sample. Furthermore, Covid-19 tests were SCARCE prior to mid March, and numerous patients were likely developing Covid symptoms in February (see below).

Along left edge, top to bottom lines: In-person visits, online patient messages, phone calls, video visits, scheduled phone visits

So, how has this affected our visits and our telehealth efforts? Purple shows you the dramatic dip with in-person outpatient visits, and the gradual climb back toward baseline. Then there is the green line of home telehealth video visits, going from nearly nothing to about 20,000 weekly in early to mid March, with gradual falling off in the past 8 weeks and it seems we might stabilize near 10,000 visits weekly. This is still about 100x the volume of video visits prior to the pandemic.

Then there are the other trend lines that are interesting: Red is the ongoing volume of Patient messages before and during the pandemic. Leaving aside the bump in mid May (not sure why: perhaps related to a system-broadcast), our baseline of 22,000 messages per week increased to 30,000, about 33% increase in volume, starting to rise on Feb 22. This pre-dated by THREE WEEKS the steep decline of in-person visits and the upswing of telehealth visits on Mar 14, and the Colorado Stay at Home order of Mar 26.

Even more interesting: telephone volume in blue, saw a tiny bump on Mar 14, but then was unchanged during the entire period. By contrast, in fuchsia Scheduled telephone visits (billable as of mid March per CMS rules), appeared in early April.

In one graph, you can see: online patient messaging demand scaling up, phone calls being static, scheduled phone calls appearing when billable, on top of the change for in-person and video visits.

Some hidden factors at work here: UCHealth set up a Covid-19 nurse advice line; those calls are not visible on any line in this graph, and those hard-working nurses took tens of thousands of calls from Coloradoans (not just UCHealth patients).

So, this data dilettante has to ask, could an increase in online patient messaging (regardless of content of message) be another possible leading indicator for future pandemic surges? We can’t be sure if these messages were about general anxiety, Covid symptoms, or perhaps completely unrelated, but it is suspicious that there is a sustained increase in volume of messages by 30%+ since mid-March. On the other hand, why isn’t online message volume falling, like home telehealth visits are falling, now that clinics are opening up in-person appointments? Stay tuned!

The open question now is: what will CMS (Centers for Medicare/Medicaid Services) do with paying for Video visits and scheduled Telephone visits? Will those payments stop or scale back? This will certainly affect all health systems still heavily relying on Fee for Service, until the rise of Value Based Care (insurance plans paying for Quality instead of Volume) takes over.

CMIO’s take? These are unprecedented times, and patient behavior and health system behavior is fascinating. A tiny RNA virus has changed the way (phone, online, in-person) patients and healthcare providers interact. What comes next?

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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