Seth Hain, Senior VP of R&D and Dr. Sam Butler, Leader of Clinical Informatics at Epic
In this episode, Seth Hain and Dr. Sam Butler discuss how emerging technologies like video visits will become an integral part of healthcare in the future and how the current COVID-19 pandemic is proving its effectiveness. They also discuss how health systems are advancing their virtual care technologies in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Epic observed 2.5 million video visits in April. Seth states that the changes we are seeing in the industry due to telehealth is not only convenient to patients but also preventing exposure of providers and clinicians on the front line. He further states that the effectiveness of technologies, like contact tracing, will be driven by broader adoption and will need to be augmented to fully account for the whole population.
Sam believes that in future physician’s schedule would be 50% face-to-face and 50% non-face-to-face visits through video, telephone, and an asynchronous electronic visit back and forth. He further states that video visits are here to stay and hopes that these visits will be associated with appropriate reimbursements models.
PP: Welcome back to my podcast, this is Paddy and it is my great privilege and honor to introduce my special guest today, Seth Hain and Sam Butler from Epic. We are seeing some very interesting times in healthcare and technologies currently. Telehealth obviously has gone through the roof in the last couple of months and by now that is old news. We also saw one of the leading telemedicine platform companies announced their results and as expected their numbers are off the charts. Are we going to see telehealth visits pull back to lower numbers in a steady state maybe later in the year or we are seeing kind of a permanent shift of certain types of care to telehealth model by default in the future?
SB: I think that we are going to see video visits as an integral part of healthcare from now on. And it took this pandemic to really show how efficient and useful a video visit can be. In my practice, I did pulmonary and critical care before joining Epic and I can remember many times seeing patients in my office, elderly men in a wheelchair with oxygen. For every visit, this patient had to visit IN every three months, a family member would have to get off work, go get grandpa, put him in a car, get their oxygen set up, get him into the clinic, get him into my exam room, which typically needed some furniture rearrangement to fit the oxygen in the wheelchair. All for me to visit with him for 10 minutes. The physical exam was limited in any emphysema patient. There is not much to hear when you listen to their lungs. And I used to think back then, what a waste for the whole system. The family member usually had to take off work to bring the father in. And many times, I could have done that visit as a video visit. But what stood in the way years ago and up until recently was that it was very difficult to get reimbursement for a video visit. In fact, Medicare had this rule that the patient had to go into another healthcare system and sit in an office and then do video between that office and the doctor or you could not get reimbursed. Now, with this pandemic the emergency rules changed, we are allowed to see patients with video visits and bill standard office visits and E&M codes for those visits. We saw 2.5 million visits in April alone and many customers went, we know one customer that went from, thirty-six hundred visits a year to thirty-six hundred visits a day. Video visits are here to stay.
PP: Sam, so you share your specific experience as a pulmonologist, and some use cases have been, for want of a better word, better candidates for tele-visits than others into the recent past. Are we going to see an expansion of the types of use cases for which telehealth is now going to be considered seriously while they were not before, right?
SB: Yeah, it used to be that it was encouraged for you not to do a new evaluation via video visit. And I think from a specialist standpoint, I would have wanted to see that patient with emphysema at least once to get acquainted with him. But the subsequent visits many of them could have been done through video visits. I think other types of complaints and other types of specialties will lend themselves to video visits, things like dermatology and also urging care where you can use questionnaires before the patient comes in. You can say this patient is a perfect visit for a video visit. They are either possibly contagious and you don’t want them to come in the clinic or it’ll be very difficult for them to get into the clinic because of the nature of their illness. For all those things you could do a video visit first. So, I think that the idea that a video visit can’t be used for the initial visit is also in the past.
SH:In addition to the obvious increases that folks are seeing and familiarity that patients and providers are getting with using telehealth platforms, say through MyChart and the changes in billing. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of home monitoring devices that are available. So this is sort of coming on the back of a series of changes in technology that make it more viable as well for that individual to stay in the comfort of their own home and understand things like their pulse ox as part of a visit. Provide that to their provider. Both provides convenience for the patient and in some cases helping not expose the providers and clinicians and folks on the front line as well. So, there’s a variety of positives that we’re seeing start to emerge on top of this.
SB: Now what about the technology to make this happen? I think as we get more home, in-home technology like oximetry and spirometry and even a stethoscope that could be placed on the patient’s chest and to be then listened to or recorded and listened to by a provider, all those are possible. In fact, I recently attended a conference where the discussion was, how do we get more lung function data directly into the EHR and one of the attendees at this workshop was a patient. And he had undergone a lung transplant a few years ago. Every day he does some spirometry, which is he measures his lung function. He does it in a handheld device. And it immediately goes up through his handheld device right into the EHR. And he did that. He said, let me pause during this introduction and blew into the device. And he said, I just sent it to my transplant specialist. So, they will have a very early warning system if he starts to have a problem with his lung.
PP: All these use cases point to a fascinating future in terms of technology-enabled remote care models. In the immediate present, though, with COVID-19 upon us and we’re kind of somewhere in the middle of this crisis. What are you seeing health systems doing in terms of advancing or modifying their clinical care protocols with the virtual care technology, not just telehealth consoles, but other things digital screening you mentioned a couple of uses for remote monitoring?
SB: Many of our customers have enabled and spread quickly pre-visit questionnaires for patients with COVID. So, if you use MyChart, the patient’s portal and say that you’d like to come in and you have a concern about a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. We can direct the patient to ask to a questionnaire. That questionnaire can be easily changed, as recently the CDC added additional symptoms to the presenting symptoms of COVID so we can ask about changes in taste, etc. Those questionnaires then can be answered prior to the visit that can direct when the patient does arrive. The healthcare providers know does this patient need to go directly to an isolation room. Is it best he even stays in the car and somebody comes out and tests them in the car? All those different steps can be done using questionnaires of the patient takes before they arrive and even, they can be used in a handheld device. Eighty-one percent of patients in the United States have a smartphone. But those that don’t can use their computer with an internet browser or even use family members’ or friends’ as long as they have proxy access to their record. And that is the first step.
SH:I think that the underlying platform that organizations are using with the Epic EHR at their core allows them in the context of something like COVID to deploy these tools quite quickly. For example, Cleveland Clinic kind of went from an idea around how to use MyChart care companion to have it deployed in 10 days. And now they are using that in sharing that content across the community, seeing other sites with 15 organizations, using it in another 70 implementing it. And it’s been that kind of core platform that allows those organizations to innovate in that way and then to spread what they learn to other organizations to help all care for their patients more effectively. I think the other interesting piece here is that these tools both help at the point of care in regards to those patients who haven’t been able to fill out their questionnaires at home and provide asynchronous visits, but they also help with public health where we have deeper information and a better understanding of symptoms across the population, for example.
SB: The first part was questionnaires and the second one was the Care Companion. Care Companion is a tool that we use, typically we thought it’d be great for monitoring patients with diabetes and heart failure at home over a protracted period of time. But it is being used for now with COVID to monitor patients with confirmed or presumed COVID infection, monitoring them while they stay at home and doing early detection of symptoms that would indicate they need to come to the hospital. And Cleveland Clinic developed that from zero to in place in 10 days. And then that have spread that to other customers as well. The actual content of the protocol. So, patients can be monitored at home, given daily tasks to monitor their temperature, their oximetry, their symptoms. They have tests to read and become more educated in as they start to feel better, what should they do to keep their family safe for their friends and as they go back out in the community? So, there are educational tasks and then the questionnaires and data that they’re entering are automatically monitored. And if a problem develops like declining oxygen saturation, even before it becomes abnormal, they can be sent to a case manager who can then contact the patient and do one of those video visits we talked about to check with them at home. So, it’s all working together.
PP: I actually really like the idea of co-developing a new solution for an immediate need or even for future needs as an example of Cleveland Clinic and then making it available to the broader community of your clients. One of the things that have been in the news as a collaborative effort among technology companies and between technology companies and health systems is contact tracing. What are your thoughts on this technology as an effective tool for checking the spread of the virus and is Epic doing something in this regard? Are you working on a contact tracing tool?
SH:I alluded a piece of this a moment ago in regard to MyChart functionality and I think broadly looking at contact tracing and possible technology implementations for supplementing it in the community. The effectiveness is really driven by broad adoption. And I think that in the context of some of the technologies that are being discussed today, there are reasonable considerations that might limit that adoption in certain contexts. Both privacy as an example for some of the technologies that track and understand what individuals have come in contact with others as well as limitations in regard to the use of those technologies in certain communities and certain populations. And because of that, we see this as one piece of the puzzle in understanding and tracking the spread of disease across the community and helping understand who may need to self-isolate, for example. But it needs to be augmented with other capabilities, both technology as well as kind of good old-fashioned folks reaching out to others to make sure that they’re taking care of themselves and their loved ones and isolating where appropriate. So, we certainly see it as part of the puzzle, but it needs to be augmented to fully account for the whole population.
SB: I think we are improving some of the functionality of MyChart to allow that. If the patient gives it permission to have like a home screen that says like, I’ve been recently tested, and I am negative. So that can be and allow patients to enter a negative test from an outside source that didn’t come from the health care system.
PP: I think there’s a lot of questions on the privacy aspects of it, but also the effectiveness of the technology. And as Seth spoke about adoption rate in a country like Singapore, where adoption rates are much higher than as a percentage of the population than elsewhere in the world. Still only in less than a million people have downloaded their contact tracing and in a population of four or five million people. So, it’s still not that high. And so, there are limitations even in a closed, tightly monitored economy like Singapore. Interestingly, the emerging job of the zero is contact tracing. So, it’s going to need a lot of people to actually follow through and track down people who potentially may have been infected, as indicated by one of these contractors.
SH:I think in addition to the contact tracing technology is kind of directly around understanding folks coming in contact with one another using smartphones and other devices to allow folks and enable them to track and understand their symptoms COVID flu-like symptoms, for example, and using that to understand it as population level, how things may be spiking or declining as we’re going through this period of social isolation right now. I think that can provide real value in understanding how and when we can start to open things back up.
PP: That’s a great segment. Hospitals are now turning to AI tools to a risk profile patient and predict deterioration, specifically COVID-19. I know Epic has launched a tool to help with this. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
SH:We’re seeing pretty broad adoption at this point of using our deterioration index model, which aims to predict twelve hours in advance of, say, a code event or need to transfer to an ICU for a patient on the med surge floors. We are seeing that tool used in the context of patients that have tested positive for COVID-19. As this pandemic started to hit we rapidly released a series of capabilities for healthcare organizations to evaluate and understand that model in the context of COVID-19 positive patients, as well as guidance on workflows to use it in that context and it’s been an interesting set of conversations where they have quickly evaluated how the model performs and deeply understood the impact and value of it in workflow and have been implementing it across. We have over 50 organizations using the model at this point.
PP: We focus a lot of the conversation on this podcast also around digital transformation. Now, COVID-19 has happened, as you look across your customer base and when you look across the landscape in general, are you seeing digital transformation slow down, accelerate or remain pretty much the same in light of everything else that is going on with the COVID-19 response?
SH:One of the keys that we have seen is that by having a solid base of both a kind of critical infrastructure and a foundation across the health system, as well as things like MyChart in patients hands, healthcare organizations have been able to rapidly innovate in a variety of spaces, both on the technology front as well as in regards to their operations. So, we’ve talked about some of the technology pieces such as Cleveland clinics, rapid deployment of MyChart Care Companion, the use of the Deterioration index model for COVID the rapid rollouts of telehealth where organizations have changed their practice. But in addition to that, they’ve also updated their operations and continue to roll out in new ways. And we’ve found that particularly interesting to see how they work.
SB: In fact, one of our customers decided to continue their go live as planned before COVID. They were a pediatric hospital and clinic organization, so they were not as affected by the surge or the preparation for such a surge. So, they decided to go ahead and partly they wanted to be up live and ready to go in the fall if influenza, RSV and COVID comes back. And we supported them virtually. So typically, there is a command center set up that go live with many tens, perhaps hundred on how large it is. People in the command center and physicians like myself go onsite to support physicians. And that was all done virtually remotely this time in a virtual command center that we hosted here at Epic with everybody sitting in separate rooms in a single building. And it was wonderful. We were able to give instant support to physicians who were sitting in front of a computer out in California. And our picture would appear, and we could see their screen and answer questions. In fact, it was better than running around the hospital from one floor to another. So, it is changing. And I think implementation meetings, everything is we are doing so much more over webcasts and video ourselves.
PP: That’s amazing. Coming up to the end of our time here. What does a new normal look like once they’re done with all of this?
SB: I think from a physician’s standpoint, I think the new normal will be as Kaiser gave us a preview of that for a couple of years now, 50 percent of their primary care doctors’ visits have been non-face-to-face and that included a smaller amount of video visits. They did a lot more e-visits. But I think the future physician schedule will be 50 percent face-to-face visits and 50 percent non-face-to-face through video, telephone, and an asynchronous electronic visit back and forth. I think that’s going to be the norm and it’ll be associated with appropriate reimbursement so we can continue to do that.
SH:In addition to that, patient and provider approach to new technologies with telehealth, we will see organizations building out and continuing to enhance their foundational platforms to be able to adopt in the workflow. The implications of large datasets using things like the deterioration index model that I described earlier on a new set of patients to help provide better care and get them home quicker to their loved ones. So, I think it is understanding that in the context of, say, rapid changes in the types of patients and the types of illnesses that folks are addressing. These platforms allow them to help rapidly and quickly care for those patients efficiently for seven sets.
PP: Fantastic talking to you folks. And thank you so much for sharing all of your insights. And I hope to talk to folks again sometime in the near future.
Disclaimer: This Q&A has been derived from the podcast transcript and has been edited for readability and clarity.
About our guest
Seth Hain, Senior Vice President of R&D at Epic, focuses on ambulatory clinical care and the integration of analytics and machine learning into healthcare. During his 15 years at Epic, Seth has also led the system and performance team, with an emphasis in database performance and architecture. A native of Seward, Nebraska, he received a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Nebraska and an M.S. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin. Seth currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two children.
With eight years of senior-level experience in multi-specialty medical group management, along with fourteen years of clinical practice experience, Dr. Sam Butler brings a wealth of knowledge to his role as leader of Epic’s Clinical Informatics Team, and helps to guide the direction of Epic’s applications. He is heavily involved in the creation and enhancement of features and development of Epic and works extensively to improve physician wellbeing. Sam has a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Science and received his M.D. from the University of Florida.
About the host
Paddy is the co-author of Healthcare Digital Transformation – How Consumerism, Technology and Pandemic are Accelerating the Future (Taylor & Francis, Aug 2020), along with Edward W. Marx. Paddy is also the author of the best-selling book The Big Unlock – Harnessing Data and Growing Digital Health Businesses in a Value-based Care Era (Archway Publishing, 2017). He is the host of the highly subscribed The Big Unlock podcast on digital transformation in healthcare featuring C-level executives from the healthcare and technology sectors. He is widely published and has a by-lined column in CIO Magazine and other respected industry publications.
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