In 2018, UCLA Health ramped up its telehealth program, called Connected Health, to enable every UCLA health care provider and patient to communicate via telephone or web-based technologies. While no one at that time anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic, UCLA Health leaders believed telehealth could benefit patients by providing them with easier access to care.
Using the myUCLAhealth patient portal, Connected Health enables physician-tophysician consultations; remote patient monitoring; and live, two-way visits between a doctor and patient in place of an office visit (a service that typically is referred to as video visits).
Prior to the pandemic, telehealth already had been adopted in some departments, such as psychiatry and for post-hospitalization follow-ups, says Mark S. Grossman, MD, clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics, who has helped oversee UCLA telehealth. But it was during the COVID-19 pandemic that patients and health care providers embraced the technology. Suddenly, primary care doctors were seeking training to use the technology, and patients were clamoring for video visits, he says. In March, Medicare and many private insurers announced they would reimburse for telehealth visits. Since then, telehealth visits have soared. From January to April, the number of telehealth visits performed by UCLA Health increased from 958 in a month to nearly 80,000. More than 1,200 UCLA Health providers are now trained to conduct video visits.
“We were very lucky to have this infrastructure in place,” Dr. Grossman says. “By March 16, we realized this was going to be a broad pandemic, and we needed to get all our physicians on board with video visits as soon as possible. We needed to protect patients, staff and physicians from potential exposure. Telehealth is a great way to assess patients in home isolation and determine if they need a higher level of care.”
The lightening-fast embrace of telehealth during the pandemic has likely changed attitudes about the technology and service forever, says Daniel M. Croymans, MD, a primary care physician and medical director of quality for the Department of Medicine. He expects that utilization of telemedicine will increase in the post-COVID-19 era. “Expanded use of video visits may be one of the few positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. “There is a lot you can see with your eyes, without doing a touchbased physical exam. Video visits allow us to provide excellent, often equivalent, care for many different patient concerns.”
Besides assessing patients for potential COVID-19 infection, video visits have been useful during the pandemic to “meet” with patients, especially those with chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension and mental health disorders, to provide care and minimize their risk of coronavirus exposure, Dr. Croymans says. Video visits are a critical bridge to ensuring our patents continue to receive the best possible care during this challenging time.
“Telehealth adds a valuable option for patients to connect with providers and complements in-person visits,” says Anne Lin, MD, associate professor of colon and rectal surgery and medical director of telehealth programs at UCLA.
But the technology has found a niche that will flourish even after the pandemic wanes, Dr. Lin predicts. “I expect that many patients will have had a positive experience and that, moving forward, they will continue to use telehealth.”