From the front lines: Virtual Visits take off at UCHealth. The Covid-19 burning platform

In-person clinic visits by week (red) and virtual visits (blue) at UCHealth, part of 2019-2020: UNVALIDATED DATA (red blips are likely Thanksgiving and December Holidays)

As recently as 2 months ago, we, the virtual visit leadership team, sat in a conference room bemoaning our fates: HOW will we get our 4000 providers (doctors and advanced practice providers) to start conducting Telehealth or Virtual Visits with patients? In all of 2019, our organization conducted about 2700 visits between providers and patients. This was a disappointing number, having spent a year integrating a 2-way video system (Vidyo) inside our Electronic Health Record (Epic). This was also disappointing because the state of Colorado passed the Parity law requiring insurers to reimburse healthcare providers the same rate for video visits as with in-person visits. What else could one want? Video visits for everybody!

Not so fast.

Turns out, doctors are humans too: you figure out a way to do something well (in-person visits with all your equipment for vital signs, sensors, gee-gaws, tests, fine-tuned teamwork honed over decades of practice), you don’t wanna change.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

CT’s inscrutable high school coach, to an uncomprehending student

We came up with all sorts of leadership plans to increase video visits: more education to front-line physicians (not helpful); sending experts to clinic to tout the benefits (nope); introducing video visits to clinicians already on bundled payments, such as surgeons whose post-op visits were no-fee (slight adoption). Video visit adoption was a local phenomenon: a few docs found it useful and did several hundred visits that way over the course of a year, and most others did not try it. Finally, we did get some traction by dedicating some urgent care docs to Virtual Urgent Care, for either a flat $49 fee or co-pay with participating insurers. For the most part though, bupkis.

In the graph above, the blue line indicates fewer than 100 video visits a week leading up to … March 2020.

And then, we know what happens next: PANDEMIC. Social Distancing. Stay-at-Home order from the governor. Suddenly clinic in-person visits plummet. And all across our 600 clinics: “Hey, wasn’t there someone here last year talking about some kind of video-thingy that we could use to see patients? Anybody have their phone number?”

We are luckier (or perhaps more prepared) than most other healthcare organizations:

  • We already integrated video into our EHR
  • We have a high-functioning IT infrastructure on a single EHR
  • We have a strong informatics group (physicians, APP’s, nurses)
  • Our clinical and administrative leaders collaborate well, and nimbly

And, okay the Feds helped:

  • CMS relaxed the rule prohibiting Medicare from paying for video visits
  • HHS relaxed the rule for HIPAA-regulation on providers of video (allowing for Skype, Zoom, even FaceTime), not that our organization needed this.

As a result, within a week of that first pandemic-related request from our providers, we scaled from 2700 visits in ALL of 2019, about a dozen per day, to 3000+ visits PER DAY. Lets say that again:

Video visits went from a dozen per day to 3000+ per day within a week

That’s just crazy talk. And also proof that John Kotter is STILL right, from his book Leading Change: Your first step is a creating a sense of urgency: a Burning Platform. And boy do we have one now, thanks to a microscopic life form .

And now? Now, I sit here in my home office, with my laptop and my smartphone connected, waiting for my next patient, who is visiting me from their home, arranged by my medical assistant, sitting at her home. Our bricks-and-mortar medical office is 2/3 empty, with a reduced crew seeing in-person visits for those without video visit tools, or needing physical exam or other services.

When we connect, every interaction feels like a victory. Every “return visit” feels like re-connecting with an old friend. In fact, I reflexively raise both arms like our team scored a goal:

“You made it!”

“Yes, I did!”

“It is GREAT to see you!”

“Yes! And how are YOU, doctor? Are you doing okay?”

The empathy of patients toward ME and my colleagues, is touching, and genuine, and so much appreciated. Unbiased opinion: longitudinal primary care internal medicine has the BEST patients in the world. Truth.

CMIO’s take? We are creating a new healthcare world, by necessity. Will we ever go back?

COVID Incident Command: a day-in-the-life

The author, defended by his creature creations.

A recapitulation of a series of tweets about my recent experience at the UCHealth’s command center. I rotate the responsibility for the physician support position with about a half-dozen other docs. The command center has been up for almost 3 weeks now.

1/ A day @uchealth Incident Command Center. Constant stream of calls. Room is full of experts (infectious diseases, pulmonary, disaster) with a dozen other directors. Like being the frontal cortex of a massive organism…

2/ If you’ve never served in a Command Center, it is scary as heck, and also exhilarating. Things happen and decisions are made in minutes and hours, not weeks and months, as is more usual in a large organization… is that

3/ Sample incoming call: ‘ICU wants to know whether to send a second COVID test nasal swab on a patient whose test was negative yesterday but the team has high suspicion they have COVID.’ (Yes, not via nasal swab, but by tracheal aspirate for better sampling)

4/ Sample call: ‘Community organization purchased 10 COVID tests somewhere; would we send a medical assistant to perform swabs on their employees.’ (No, test performs poorly for patients with no symptoms.’ and, how do you choose who to swab? And, what would you do differently if you have a result? negative: stay home. Positive: stay home(!)

5/ Sample call: ‘Hey, if ventilators are scarce, we could build Iron Lungs faster: want some?’ (After internal discussion, no: COVID is associated with ARDS (adult respiratory distress syndrome). ARDS causes stiff lungs, unlike polio, and even then they didn’t work well), AND, how to manage IVs and catheters?

6/ Our converted conference room now is 24/7 staffed with executives, directors, nurses, doctors, staff who connect to every part of our 12-hospital, 600 clinic, 4000 provider system. Kinda like a neocortex…

7/ We sit and take calls from all over the system, clarifying the daily-changing policy, delivering nimble responses to moment-to-moment events in our EDs, our clinics, our hospital wards …

8/ We huddle in purposeful groups through the day: medical officers, informaticists, nurse leadership, respiratory therapists, ICU teams, hospitalists, data analysts, facility managers, tent-building teams(!) …

9/ We ‘run the board’ twice a day to ensure our top issues are addressed, re-prioritized, to keep our eye on the ball: racing ahead of the coming tsunami of COVID-infected patients collapsing on our doorstep…

10/ We marshal our supplies, build negative pressure rooms, re-allocate staff, negotiate new partnerships, create and dissolve projects to solve immediate problems…

11/ Dramatically expand our Virtual Health Center for Virtual Urgent Care, expand our nurse call line to handle COVID concern calls, go from 2700 virtual visits last year to 3000 virtual visits per DAY this week…

12/ Discover new trends: hypoxic COVID patients who are surprisingly not short of breath, patients who oxygenate better laying on their stomachs, how poorly bleach wipes interact with electronics(!) …

13/ We tearfully celebrate improvement: today a cluster of patients successfully extubated from the vent, a few patients de-cannulated from ECMO, a hallway of nurses applauding an ECMO survivor…

14/ And yet we have fun… Jurassic organisms battle for supremacy while modern organisms do the same.

15/ Our loyal administrative intern asked our Incident Commander at the end of her day shift: ‘How do you feel? How do you think we’re doing?’ …

16/ Her reply: ‘For the world, terrible. For our country, very worried. Here, we have prepped well, we have a great team, we forecast constantly, and we are going to meet this challenge.’ So proud of her, and us.

Laocoön, The Aeneid and Captain Picard

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laoco%C3%B6n_and_His_Sons

My high-school aged son is avidly devouring classic literature, and the echoes of those epic struggles from my own education, float back to me. On our winter break one evening, he had left the Norton Anthology of Western Literature out on the coffee table. Soon I was in the midst of battle at Troy, at Carthage, in Rome.

Aeneas of Troy, in the classic by Virgil, faces a long journey with many trials. Even in 20 BC, storytellers mastered Story. Sometimes the smallest moments are the best parts of a story:

  • Laocoön runs out from the city to warn his fellow citizens of Troy, that the large wooden horse left behind by hastily departed Greeks, was a trick: ‘beware of Greeks, even bearing gifts.’ To punish him, the gods send a pair of serpents to devour his sons and then kill him. The image above of Laocoön dying defending his sons is such a moment. The city elders, seeing him killed by the gods, are then convinced that he is wrong, and bring the Trojan Horse inside the gates. Of course, you know the rest: the city of Troy falls that night as hidden Greek solders pour out, open the gates and ransack the city.
  • Aeneas initially resolves to stay and defend his city to the death. His touching moment with his father and their resolve to stay together and flee is a pivotal moment of change for both of them.
  • Aeneas meets Dido, queen of Carthage, in his storm-tossed journey, and falls madly in love. Soon after, the gods send him a message that he and his lineage are to become the founders of Rome. He leaves immediately. Dido kills herself in despair.
  • With supernatural help, Aeneas journeys to the underworld to see the future: that his descendants establish Rome and create the Roman Empire.

These moments, to which I’ve summarized so prosaically, are told in verse and with rich detail and sensory imagery.

Interestingly, the Norton Anthology also included the ancient translation of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest recorded epic story. Being a science fiction geek, perhaps I should not have been surprised that my first exposure to this classic, written in antiquity, circa 1700 BC, first reached my ears via Captain Picard, on the all-time most popular episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation TV show called Darmok (no, not the new, apparently amazing show, that is behind the CBS paywall). Careful, don’t read the links unless you have time; you won’t come out for awhile.

CMIO’s take? Great storytelling captivating, and timeless. Smart people lived thousands of years ago. Sometimes Captain Picard teaches you ancient literature.

Take a breath! and try JOMO during our pandemic

from esteemed colleague George Reynolds, former CIO and CMIO

I was chatting with an informatics colleague last week, mentioning that our family had spent some time in Utah recently.

He sent me this photo he had taken in Utah recently. Beautiful, no?

Are you taking care of yourself? It looks like we are in this for the long haul. Colorado is now under a stay-at-home order, and it looks like our infection curve is more like Italy than it is like Taiwan or South Korea: it is still accelerating, and will be awhile before the worst is past.

So, take a break. I tried hard this weekend to step away, watch a movie, hang out with the family, go for a walk, a run, a bike outing, bask in the sun, get some sleep, in between online-work. Maybe JOMO is a good word to think of at times like this.

We wrote on our family white board some daily tasks:

  • Cap your news/social media at 30 minutes a day
  • Exercise: ping pong / walk / run / bike / dance
  • Play or listen to music!
  • 3 Good Things

CMIO’s take? Do you give yourself moments of beauty? of music? of laughter? play a game?

Please do.

Consider asking your family members to do the 3 Good Things exercise (see above) , thinking of things you’re grateful for.

Hand wash. Stay healthy, best you can.

Thanks for the photo, George.

Is this our Midway moment with COVID?

From John Lee’s article referring to: (Image: National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-414423.) https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/battle-midway

In his lovely medium.com article, colleague John Lee MD writes about the World War II Battle of Midway, how it was a turning point in the war, and how this moment, in our battle with COVID-19, just might be our moment.

I know CMIO’s and physician informaticists around the country and world are scrambling to marshal our forces to meet the enemy:

  • Building predictive models for deterioration of COVID patients
  • Creating alerts to reduce prescribing of azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine to save our existing supplies in case this is a valid therapy
  • Building and deploying Virtual Visits throughout our organization to reduce COVID exposure to our patients, our staff, our providers
  • Teaching our colleagues and our patients how to use these new tools, using VIDYO, Epic MyChart, ECHO, ZOOM, SKYPE, Facetime, whatever tools you’ve got to connect with each other, with our patients. When everyone is working from home, and only some folks have wifi, or a smartphone, or a laptop, or …
  • Rewriting our documentation templates to keep up with federal and state requirements on what we have to say to live in this new world of virtual care
  • Implementing new COVID ICD10 codes to allow us to track COVID positive patients, as well as COVID PUI (patients under investigation while the test result is pending)
  • Figuring out what happens when we put 2 patients on a single ventilator if shortages occur, how we might automatically downlink ventilator settings directly to the chart. One unanticipated consequence is that the second patient gets NO data from the vent while the first patient might get incorrect (double volume?) data!
  • Building new rooms that are located in emergency tents set up outside the hospital for possible dramatic expansion next week (does wifi go that far? will our WOWs-workstations on wheels survive the winter weather? what is the room number for parking spot #4?)
  • Figuring out how to share resources between hospitals and health systems to see which of us is hit hardest and how to work together best we can
  • This is just off the top of my head for discussions this week.

CMIO’s take? Read Dr. Lee’s post. I like how it is challenging and hopeful at the same time. To my esteemed colleagues in informatics, in medicine. Take a breath. Get some rest. Lets GO.

Unified Theory of Design Thinking for Social Systems (thanks to d_school at Stanford)

I recently attended a 6-day course Designing for Social Systems at the Hasso Plattner d_school at Stanford University. We sent at team from our Wellness initiative at the University of Colorado Department of Medicine, cutely named “WellDOM” (more on this in a future post). It was … a mind blower.

What is design thinking and why is it so cool?

  • It is a system of thinking that both expands and focuses creative thought.
  • It encourages curiosity and diving into the ethnography of individuals
  • It also encourages thinking about positive and negative influences at many levels of social systems
  • It actively encourages play, physical manipulation of prototypes and sticky notes to build a joint vision
  • It uses storytelling, rapid cycle development, ‘what if’ and ‘how might we’ statements to spark ideas.
  • It is FUN.

I’ve been thinking and digesting what I learned over the past few months and came up with the graphic above. I’m a visual thinker, and although it is quite cluttered, I think it finally encapsulates the scope of what I now appreciate to be Design Thinking for Social Systems:

  • It is Human-Centered (focused on emotion, story, experience), the inner yellow circle
  • It is Systems-Aware (complex social systems impact your success), the outer blue circle
  • It is Strategy-Focused (keep your end-goals in mind)
  • The inner and outer circles interact, and the strategy lane underlies the whole group of activities.
  • There are perhaps 4 dozen specific activities that allow you dive deeply into every part of this diagram, in your pursuit of a creative, lateral-thinking solution to complex, ambiguous problems.

Don’t wait! Take one of these courses! And start applying it today!

CMIO’s take? Creativity, and NOT Computing Horsepower, is the next frontier.

Social Distancing: This is Not a Snow Day (Medium)

I support this, carefully written by a primary care physician and public health expert. This is a meme worth spreading to combat fear and the virus. Stay safe out there. CTL


I know there is some confusion about what to do next in the midst of this unprecedented time of a pandemic, school closures, and widespread social disruption. As a primary care physician and public…
— Read on medium.com/@ariadnelabs/social-distancing-this-is-not-a-snow-day-ac21d7fa78b4