Keith Loria is a contributing writer to Medical Economics.
By using a telehealth platform, a South Carolina practice has enhanced patient communication and workflow
Sweetgrass Pediatrics, which operates six locations with 22 physicians, often found it challenging to engage with parents and provide timely responses.
Christopher Ollic, director of operations for the Summerville, S.C. practice, says the practice was looking for an easier method of communication.
“Although our practice has six locations, it operates as one with centralized functions such as a triage department that routes incoming requests, which can make managing scheduling, refills and patient inquiries sometimes difficult,” he says. “Callers would have to leave voicemail messages with clinical questions and medical records requests. Of course, someone had to listen to messages, then answer or forward them to another team member.”
Leadership knew that in today’s age, most people think about texting before making a phone call, and it started exploring opportunities to use text messaging as a reliable communication option. They found a HIPAA-compliant, cloud-based telehealth platform called Rhinogram.
“Our goal was to increase parent communication to make their lives easier, while improving the workflow of our staff,” Ollic says.
This telehealth solution allows parents to communicate with the practice in real-time via simple texts, giving the doctors the ability to better engage with parents while streamlining staff workflows.
Parents whose children are patients at Sweetgrass Pediatrics consent to receive texts from the practice, as is required under HIPAA.
“Now they get a response within a few minutes, versus playing phone tag or waiting hours for a reply,” Ollic says. “Offering text communications met a need, and our patients love it. It also improves record-keeping for our staff, because now all text messages are archived in an auditable patient communication record.”
In just over a year since implementation, Sweetgrass has added hundreds of new inbound contacts and text volume increased from 6,000 to 18,000 texts per month. The average response time to incoming messages has also significantly decreased from five hours, to seven minutes, so parents are getting their questions answered more quickly. And the practice is handling all of this traffic with no increase in staffing.
“By streamlining communications between the practice and our parents, our staff is more available to answer their questions, and put their minds at ease about the health of their children,” Ollic says. “We’re seeing a true competitive advantage in the greater Charleston service area and get compliments on the texting platform every day. This is a great service for us.”
Additionally, scheduling workflows have greatly improved since one staff person can have several text conversations in the time it takes to make one phone call. The staff appreciates not having to be talking on the phone all the time.
“One person does just text scheduling and another triages clinical questions, with physician approval,” Ollic says. “Clarifications about EOBs or statements go right to the medical billing records manager. Additionally, our full staff has complete insight into communications by accessing an analytics dashboard that shows metrics like message volume, response times and patient behaviors.”
With 22 physicians and seven nurse practitioners, Sweetgrass is one of the state’s largest pediatric Medicaid providers and participates in a patient-centered medical home (PCMH), which requires an extraordinary level of patient access.
Ollic says Sweetgrass Pediatrics prides itself on patient and parent satisfaction, day in and day out.
“This includes working to improve communication and offering greater flexibility and options for our patients like having online scheduling, weekend hours for sick visits, and allowing parents to text the practice with appointment requests, clinical questions, refill requests and to access medical records,” he says. “We feel these options are helping to increase patient satisfaction and ultimately, improved workflow. And it turns out that these efforts to improve patient engagement have resulted in reduced costs for us, so really it’s a win-win for all.”