In-your-car healthcare and on-your-couch telehealth are two COVID-19 driven innovations likely to stick around at Baptist Health hospitals in some form long after face coverings are consigned to the attic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, rapid spread of the virus spurred lockdowns and social distancing requirements that limited a patient’s physical access to healthcare.

Baptist Health teams hit upon a pair of viable solutions to take patient care outside the brick and mortar setting — leaning into American’s love affair with their cars and diving into virtual care via smartphones, tablets and computers.

“Medicine’s delivery of healthcare has changed forever” because of the pandemic, said CEO Gerard Colman. “It created the need to think very differently about the delivery of care – such as how many patients should be in a waiting room. Our quick pivot allowed Baptist Health to safely provide care and help patients take care of their immediate medical needs, rather than delaying care.

“We’ve seen that these types of solutions – particularly digital solutions — are popular with patients. We’ll continue to use these types of solutions, and build on them, in the future.”

Drive-through service, mobile waiting room

Patients taking blood-thinning medication need regular checks to ensure their clotting ability stays within a very narrow range. Too high and they may bleed. Too low and clots may form. Frequent INR monitoring is the only way to maintain this delicate balance.

But with hospitals and medical offices restricting access, INR monitoring was problematic. Baptist Health Corbin’s solution? Take it outside and curbside. In just a week, pharmacists and technicians created a system to test patients who never had to get out of their vehicles.

“This was more convenient for patients, many who were high-risk for COVID-19, to safely continue their anticoagulation therapy,” said pharmacist Marissa Scent. “We also expanded our curbside service for patients wishing to pick up medications without entering the hospital.”

Curbside pickup for medicine from Baptist Hospital pharmacies picked up steam at other locations, including Baptist Health Richmond and Baptist Health Louisville.

COVID testing – and vaccinations later – became convenient drive-thru affairs. Baptist Health Richmond was among those with drive-thru testing, which proved faster. Baptist Health Floyd pioneered drive-thru vaccinations, giving more than 42,000 vaccinations in an efficient system successfully mirrored by sister hospital Baptist Health Louisville.

Another in-the-car solution was the MyChart Hello Patient feature. When Baptist Health Medical Group offices reopened, Hello Patient helped with social distancing by using geolocation to detect when a patient arrives for his or her appointment. The office, alerted that the patient has arrived, sends a message to wait in the car for further instructions or enter the building and check in with registration staff.

Virtually likely to continue

Digital health is as convenient as the couch, easing concerns about transportation, braving bad weather and exposure to COVID-19. For healthcare providers, it’s also been convenient and maintains vital connections with their patients. On the practical side, supply costs were trimmed and some staff were able to work remotely when offices were closed.

Once medical offices closed because of the pandemic, Baptist Health moved swiftly to beef up its virtual care capabilities. In just a weekend, IT teams dramatically ramped up digital health capabilities so healthcare providers could connect with their patients via video visit.

“We went from using a single provider to deliver virtual urgent care treatment, to all of our medical group’s specialties utilizing virtual services with patients to some extent,” said Brett Oliver, MD, chief medical information officer. “These capabilities were later expanded to allow new patients to use the service.

“Without digital health, there simply would not have been access for patients and providers to connect,” he added. “Many routine visits would have been put off for a long time. Patients and providers both were able to remain safe in their homes, during very unknown times.”

The video teleconferencing service was also a lifeline for behavioral health patients that even gave staff some additional insight into where patients were (literally) coming from as they could virtually “see” the patient’s daily living and surroundings.

In 2020, 217,838 digital encounters were made between Baptist Health providers and patients, including 102,625 scheduled video visits and 101,427 telephone visits.

“In just a few months, digital health advanced by years,” said Nick Sarantis, system director of digital health. “People have embraced the shift to digital health. It’s one of the silver linings of the pandemic.”