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Spectrum Health Integrates Telehealth, Patient Portal to Cut Costs

Analysis  |  By Philip Betbeze  
   June 14, 2018

A Michigan health system's patient portal has a half million accounts, and its telemedicine service has doubled volume in the past 12 months.

Spectrum Health's bet on creating its own digital health strategy is built on its belief that reducing costs is the path to future relevance as well as growth in the present.

Its strategy ties together many services into a cohesive ecosystem that, because of its breadth, provides many benefits to the integrated delivery network.

HealthLeaders recently spoke with Tina Freese Decker, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the 12-hospital, $6 billion (revenue) health system based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Freese Decker has led the digital health initiative prior to and through its 2015 launch of MedNow, its telemedicine offering.

Since then, the service has experienced 260% year-over-year growth, and is closely integrated with the more than a half million accounts associated with Spectrum's patient portal, MyHealth.

Following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

HealthLeaders: Where does digital fit into Spectrum's overall strategy?

Tina Freese Decker: First, it's important for our community to have access to healthcare. Improving access and making it as convenient and as local as possible to reduce the cost of care was one of the reasons to launch.

Patients can use MedNow instead of going to the ED or other forms of care that are more costly.

We have two main platforms: one is primary care–based and direct-to-consumer, and we have a specialty platform, where you could be at one of the community hospitals and connect with specialists in urban settings. That way you don't have to travel an hour and park for a 15-minute appointment.

HealthLeaders: Lots of health systems have patient portals and have been talking about their importance for more than a decade. What sets Spectrum’s apart?

Freese Decker: Healthcare is going to be more digital. We need to connect with patients and consumers to make it easier for them, but it's also more convenient and cost-effective. In some cases, it's improved care.

Here's a story about how we first got started: I was at our regional hospital where we wanted to make sure we were providing convenient care that was cost-effective. Cardiology asked to champion. We bought that technology.

At the time, physicians valued seeing patients in person and were skeptical [about telemedicine]. At the end of the first trial, we asked physicians and patients what they thought.

[One] physician said it worked well, but he just wished he could have shaken the patient's hand. The patient said it was fantastic due to time savings and, although he appreciated what the physician did, he said, "I don't need to shake your hand."

HealthLeaders: Spectrum is focusing on digital transformation generally. What else does that encompass besides telehealth and the patient portal?

Freese Decker: I'm privy to ROI over the whole system. I've looked at the impact on the health plan, and it shows significant savings. We avoided almost 11,000 ER or urgent care visits and saved almost a million miles of travel with this. But the ROI is not just based on the telemedicine.

HealthLeaders: How does it serve to bind the patient to the health system?

Freese Decker: The strategy helps connect us with a relationship, and allows the patient to choose a convenient and easy way to interact with a health provider.

 The benefit of building it on our own is that, as a patient, I can see my medications through the EMR. And as a patient, I feel the provider knows me because he or she can see my chart.

That was purposeful, and it has helped us attract new patients. Many people are generally well, and they have that one instance where they may be sick. We've had many new patients who have approached us through MedNow and created a relationship with us through that entry point.

HealthLeaders: What's the benefit of having MedNow and MyHealth integrated into the health plan?

Freese Decker: Patients can understand their claims and their deductible and match it with the medical side. Consumers can see there's a value to being a health plan member.

One of the strong benefits is our connection to the cost estimator tool through our health plan. I can see exactly what I will pay, or a pretty darn close estimate.

That's really valuable information and keeps us up with the trend for transparency in pricing. About 25% of the patients seen at Spectrum are also Priority Health members.

HealthLeaders: Where does digital fit into the top strategic priority for Spectrum?

Freese Decker: It's changing the way we think about our interactions and relationships. We need to think digital first because patients want to get information before they make a decision.

We launched our Find a Doctor page to help patients find physicians, but it also has information that helps patients make a decision.

We've posted all the comments from patient satisfaction surveys, star ratings for physicians, shoppable services like lab services, and added information about the insurance physicians take. All of that has driven a lot of traffic to our website.

HealthLeaders: What is the future for digital at Spectrum?

Freese Decker: I'm spending most of my time on moving the organization to achieve our larger strategic goal of becoming consumer-centric.

Our goal is to reduce total cost of care. Health systems must collaborate and partner with each other and others outside the industry.

There needs to be more focus on wellness. People are looking for nutrition and how to exercise well. That’s been untapped. And genomics are going to play a bigger role in health and wellness.

We must understand that what made us successful in the past may not make us successful in the future. We have to be willing to try new things and not be satisfied with the status quo.

Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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