Blazing a Trail for the Future of Virtual Care
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Utah Health boasted 12 specialties with active telehealth programs. U of U Health had 10,000 virtual patient visits in 2019—far more than neighboring and similar health systems.
In response to the pandemic, many of our clinical teams quickly integrated the use of virtual care as a mechanism for caring for patients. The result was a staggering 450,000 virtual patient visits in 2020 alone. This experience proves that, in most cases, there is an element of virtual care that makes a lot of sense for patients and providers.
As a clinician, I have always been fascinated with how technology can improve the experience for patients, providers, and care teams. Over the past decade, I’ve had the opportunity to help U of U Health grow its telehealth programs, enhancing patient access throughout the Mountain West with the use of technology.
As I step into my new role as Senior Director of Virtual Care at University of Utah Health, my focus is to apply the lessons we have learned over the past 20 years to build a future-ready health system.
Early Adopters of Telehealth
U of U Health has a longstanding tradition of innovation, so it’s no wonder that, compared to other health care institutions across the nation, telehealth had an early beginning here in Utah.
U of U Health launched its first two telehealth programs in 2004: TeleStroke and TeleBurn. These programs were created, in part, by innovative doctors and care teams working to overcome patient barriers to high-quality care. While these programs were successful, telehealth was a very niche strategy, promoted only in select specialties. However, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has become an important tool for both patients and providers.
In surgery and procedural areas, virtual care has been a tool for pre- and post-surgical connections. For primary and specialty care, virtual care has created greater capacity, allowing us to care for more patients than we could at physical facilities. For urgent services, virtual care plays a vital role in opening new doors of access to our exceptional providers and care teams using technological connections.
Newly Created Virtual Care Team
As U of U Health continues to advance an aligned digital health strategy, the newly created Virtual Care team will draw from the success of the Office of Network Development and Telehealth (ONDT). Since ONDT launched in 2013, it has extended the exceptional care of U of U Health providers to our partners in the region through clinical outreach and engagement. ONDT will continue to focus on strategic partnership and outreach telehealth efforts, while the Virtual Care team will focus on U of U Health-designed patient journeys.
The mission of the Virtual Care team is to optimize our current virtual care practices, making our workflow and technology as efficient and effective as possible for our patients and providers. Another important part of our mission is innovation. What if we enhance the virtual visit to make it a preferred experience? There are so many things that we can do with technology today—imagine the future possibilities with more advanced technologies.
Harnessing Technology to Create Access
Our strategy for the next three years is to harness the power of technology to overcome one of our biggest barriers: patient access.
As the only academic medical center in the Mountain West, U of U Health serves urban, rural, and frontier communities throughout the region. Although our clinical footprint covers roughly 10 percent of the total area of the continental United States, we see patients within a much larger geographical area.
While virtual care isn’t a silver bullet, it presents an important set of solutions and tools. If we consider virtual care in all access points—clinics, hospitals, surgery centers—we have the opportunity to better filter patients to the most appropriate location for our services. We want to find situations where adding a provider-driven technology access point can help a patient avoid needing to be seen in the clinic. And, if a clinic appointment is required, we can make sure the patient knows what imaging or labs are required ahead of time so both patient and provider are more prepared for the appointment. It’s all about bridging the gap of access in strategic ways to connect patients with our experts in more effective, efficient ways.
Sharing Our Findings
I am grateful for the unique opportunity to take on the role of Senior Director of Virtual Care. We can find the best ways to make virtual care work for our faculty and patients, and then share our findings with other institutions. As an academic medical center, we have a responsibility to test, study, prove, and then publish our findings so others can benefit. I’m convinced we can do that.
Nate Gladwell, RN, MHA
Nate Gladwell is Senior Director of Virtual Care at University of Utah Health. With a background as an ED and ICU nurse, Gladwell developed a passion for the human elements of health care. For more than a decade, he has been the catalyst for the growth and impact of U of U Health specialists that utilize telehealth and clinical outreach to provide care to rural communities throughout the Mountain West. Nate is a member of the Telehealth Advisory Committee for the AAMC and co-chair of the Telehealth Integration Sub-Committee working on operational enhancements for virtual care across academic medical centers nationally. Gladwell received a Master of Healthcare Administration at the University of Minnesota.