September 17, 2020

Healthcare heroes: UW Health recognizes those who ramped up virtual care during the pandemic

Madison, Wis. — UW Health is devoting this week to honoring some of the unsung healthcare heroes who are essential to our COVID-19 response. Today we are recognizing the important work of those who make our telehealth program happen.

Virtual forms of medicine have been utilized at UW Health for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a far larger program – and in short order – but thanks to the hard work of this dedicated group of individuals that challenge was met.

In March, with clinics consolidating, access to in-person care was severely limited to protect patients and slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but patients still needed care and thousands of them had appointments postponed.

A group of UW Health employees from Information Services, Nursing Informatics, Clinical Operations, HLEOS and the Telehealth Program took this challenge head on and provided a means for many of these patients, both inpatient and outpatient, to see a provider - virtually.

They did it almost overnight compared to the amount of time it traditionally takes to build out a network like this, according to Tom Brazelton, medical director of the UW Health Telehealth Program.

Around March 13, this small team of six at UW Health began building the physical hardware and information systems that allow providers to see patients virtually within the hospital. By March 17, the team had grown to 26 and 6,000 tablets and computers were ready for service, allowing all pediatric and adult infectious disease, critical care providers and hospitalists to be trained to use virtual care with UW Health inpatients.

Immediately thereafter, the team turned its attention to rapidly setting up and testing the infrastructure for outpatient visits.

By April 23, the team had the system ready for all ambulatory primary and specialty care visits as well – a first at UW Health – and by early May more than 1,000 providers were engaging in 4,000 patient visits per week.

In the first week of March, as the pandemic set in, almost all patient visits with providers were conducted in person, but by the second week of April about 72 percent of all visits across the health system were either over the phone or via video visit using an enabled computer or device. By July, as in-person visits began to return to pre-pandemic levels, video visits remained a large part of the ambulatory visit mix, about 28 percent.

"I can’t say enough about the incredible effort, long hours and dedication this team made to provide our patients and providers with a service they desperately needed during this pandemic," Brazelton said. "The efforts of people like Cristin Hopp, Rob Rohrer and Amy Schmitz, just to name a few, were invaluable - this system wouldn’t be here without them."