Dr. Michael Grabowski, a general surgeon at Parkview Health, was used to seeing patients in person on three different occasions: the consultation before the surgery, the surgery itself and checkups.
That changed in early June, when Grabowski became the first Parkview surgeon to use virtual visits as part of his post-operative care.
“I think there's so much low-hanging fruit for where a hospital, health care system or doctors can leverage telehealth to make access better or make the experience better, to provide services that they want to provide,” Grabowski said in an interview last month.
Practicing in Fort Wayne the last 18 years, Grabowski's day is typically filled with minimally invasive surgeries, dealing with gall bladders, hernias and intestinal procedures.
His patients usually leave the same day, but after surgery, they may have to return more than once. These visits can last less than five minutes, some patients deeming them unnecessary.
“The biggest thing I see in Fort Wayne, having been here nearly 20 years, is patients in Huntington, Warsaw or Van Wert, Ohio, want to access services, but for them, taking off a day of work and driving an hour is a very big deal,” Grabowski said. “How do we solve some of these basic issues? The technology is there. It's just a matter of getting adoption and finding where it fits in what we all do.”
The answer was at his fingertips.
Using the app MyChart, patients needing follow-up visits can stay at home, having their virtual visit by using a phone, iPad or laptop equipped with a camera.
Max Maile, vice president of virtual health at Parkview, said it works a lot like FaceTime.
First, a visit is scheduled between the patient and Grabowski. A virtual, private room is created, allowing both to connect. From there, it is like any other checkup.
“They can show me their wounds if they have them, we can discuss what's going on and essentially summarize that you don't need to come in and meet with me,” Grabowski said. “I can show them their pathology report, their X-rays or things that we need to go over.”
To protect patient privacy, opening MyChart creates a secure connection on the Parkview network, making the visit compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, Maile said.
While Parkview surgeons had not previously used telehealth to create virtual visits, the technology is not new to the health care system.
The last 10 years, Parkview Health has been working on its telehealth program, starting with the StrokeCareNow Network, followed by the Parkview OnDemand app, which allows patients to request a virtual visit for issues including colds, the flu, upper respiratory issues and allergies.
Just three years ago, it formed a telemedicine team, with its 10 members focusing on ways to implement telehealth into different areas of the hospital.
As Grabowski begins to offer virtual visits, he hopes to see 50% of his patients using the service. But he's also prepared for some skepticism.
“I think this is going to be really for those tech-savvy people that are wanting to try something different,” Grabowski said. “I have patients that come in and say, 'Well, that was kind of a waste of time, and I had to drive all the way in.' So, I think there's going to be a niche group of people. It won't be for everybody.”
While many might think older generations would be less tech-savvy, Grabowski and Maile said often it's the opposite.
“From our demographics, just what we see from our other specialties, is that it's not just 20-year-olds using this. They may think of telehealth first, as an option. They may search out resources first,” Maile said. “Typically, when offered, the 50-and-older patients are very eager to try this. Part of this is just chronic care, they see doctors more frequently.”
Grabowski hopes in the future to use virtual visits as a supplement for pre-surgical care. At the moment someone is referred to him, Grabowski could look at their chart and assess what type of tests or procedure they would need before walking through the door.
He also sees it expanding within the surgical field, where senior physicians can watch other surgeons perform procedures across the country and provide mentorship.
For now, Grabowski is curious to see how many of his patients will say yes when they are offered virtual visits.
“Allowing people to immediately contact their doctor, and actually talk to them, see them, have their wounds looked at, it keeps people out of the emergency rooms and keeps them out of other costly things that don't need to be part of it,” Grabowski said. “I think it's going to be a critical factor.”