As health systems add more telehealth capabilities, CEO Matthew Rill says the hospital environment could change forever.
The longer the pandemic continues, the more likely it is that telemedicine permanently will impact emergency room volumes and how hospitals operate, said Telescope Health CEO and co-founder Matthew Rill.
For two months following the start of COVID-19 shutdowns, Rill said Telescope Health, a Jacksonville-based telemedicine provider, grew from seeing about 15 patients a day to 300 a day.
Its volume has remained higher than usual, and now, Rill said Telescope Health is seeing a higher percentage of non-COVID patients.
Telescope began partnering with the city of Jacksonville in March to provide COVID-19 testing.
“People were fearful during the spring and not coming into traditional brick-and-mortar spots,” he said.
“I think that the hospitals have done a great job of responding to the threat, so people are returning back to brick-and-mortar spaces. But at the same time, I think there’s been a lot of folks who have enjoyed this new access to health care.”
At UF Health Jacksonville, ER volumes hit their lowest points in May.
The Downtown hospital’s ER volume was down 28% from May 2019 and UF Health North’s was down about the same at 27%.
Around 20% of visits at local health systems still are via telemedicine, Rill said. He doesn’t expect hospitals to stop providing it, but rather expand their virtual offerings.
“I think all health systems will be looking for ways to expand their network via telemedicine,” he said.
Rill started Telescope Health in May 2019 from Emergency Resources Group, a Jacksonville-based company that provides emergency room services for Baptist Health and Flagler Hospital. Rill is an emergency physician.
The goal was to provide a more accessible and affordable health care option.
“We were looking at the future of medicine and could see that the landscape for emergency medicine was changing, and we knew that it would be important to not only care for people in the hospital but provide services outside the hospital,” Rill said.
Most conditions can be treated in some way through telemedicine, he said.
For ailments that would typically require an ER visit, telemedicine can speed up the process once the patient arrives at the hospital or eliminate the need for a trip.
Rill said Telescope Health treats stroke and heart attack patients by helping them call 911 and then coordinating with the ER team to increase efficiency.
With fewer in-person visits at ERs, health systems would need less physical space for hospitals and ERs in the future.
“So many conditions can be started or managed via telemedicine and we use the brick-and-mortar space for important physical exams that need to be done in person or testing that needs to be done in person,” Rill said.
Telehealth visits also can reduce chronically ill patients’ hospital visits. A doctor can prescribe a medication virtually, and schedule more frequent virtual follow-up appointments to make adjustments to a patient’s care plan.
When health systems expand their telehealth usage, they’re able to treat more patients with fewer resources.
“Now you can make micro-adjustments to improve their health with very little increased cost to anyone,” he said.
The average cost of ER visits in 2017 was $1,389, according to the Health Cost Institute. Telescope Health charges $69 a visit.
The only issue is that some insurance companies don’t cover telehealth visits, but Rill said he does not think that’s far away.
“It will only work long-term if the reimbursement structures catch up to support it,” he said. “It’s better for the patient, it’s better for the health system, it’s better for the insurance companies.”
“I think telemedicine is here to stay,” he said.