Telehealth: How Asynchronous Communication Creates Provider Efficiencies

By Mandy Roth, HealthLeaders Media

At the beginning of 2020, physicians and consumers had not yet fully embraced the concept of virtual video visits; many were skeptical about the ability to deliver care effectively in this manner. Yet after the pandemic forced the adoption of virtual visits, perceptions and usage forever changed.

Today, asynchronous communication faces the same hurdles. Providers and patients don’t understand how it works and question its value.

“It’s a technology whose time has not yet come,” says Oliver Lignell, vice president of virtual health at health system consultancy AVIA, which helps members accelerate their digital transformation initiatives. “It’s not yet mainstream, but it should be.”

Presbyterian Healthcare Services, an Albuquerque, New Mexico–based nonprofit integrated healthcare delivery system, began investigating this approach to healthcare four years ago.

“It’s been incredibly effective,” says Ries Robinson, MD, senior vice president and chief innovation officer. Between the system’s nine hospitals and a health plan it offers, the organization serves a third of the state’s residents. With a shortage of practitioners in New Mexico, and 70% of the care it provides covered by capitated contracts, Presbyterian needed to find a way to operate more efficiently.

Asynchronous communication worked. Last year, a designated group of employed urgent care physicians handled 50,000 asynchronous visits for low-acuity care, and spent an average of two minutes on each encounter—far less than the 15-18 minutes it takes to conduct a typical video call.

This form of care does not occur in real time. Depending on the platform used, a patient completes and submits an online form via secure email, text, or an app, detailing his or her complaint and relevant history. A physician receives the information, processes it, and sends a response back to the patient with instructions and prescriptions, if necessary.

Presbyterian physicians usually respond within 15 minutes; some health systems using asynchronous communication allow up to 24 hours. There is no direct audio or video exchange with the patient unless the physician thinks it is warranted and escalates the encounter.

Asynchronous communication offers multiple advantages

Asynchronous communication offers some distinct advantages to health systems, say the experts.

Synchronous care, which includes video, audio, and in-person visits, comes with an Achilles’ heel: Regardless of venue, the physician spends about the same amount of one-to-one time with the patient, says digital medicine expert Ashish Atreja, MD, MPH, chief information and digital health officer at UC Davis Health in Sacramento, California. “The real growth you’re going to see in value,” he says, “is the ability to deliver one-to-many care.” Asynchronous communication is a step in that direction.

“One of the most important things asynchronous communication does is help scale response,” says Ann Mond Johnson, MBA, MHA, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association. In addition, because patients can use it with a phone or the internet, it can address issues of access, she says.

Robinson says the SmartExam™ platform Presbyterian is using, made by Bright.md, includes features that appeal to its physicians. It automatically enters chart-ready SOAP (Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan) notes into the electronic medical record (EMR), creates billing files, and manages patient follow-up communications.

“It’s extremely elegant,” says Robinson. SmartExam’s design, which asks patients questions in an interview-style exchange, and advanced logic has earned the trust of the physicians who use it, he says.

“I remember the first time [physicians] said, ‘I trust it’; I thought that was kind of a funny term to use,” Robinson recalls. When he asked the doctors what they meant, they explained that the tool is thorough and consistent in a way humans cannot replicate. “That’s what the providers really like.” Even the best medical assistant, he says, may vary in how they ask questions of patients, forget to include certain details, or package assessments differently.

How to calculate cost savings

While Robinson says the health system has detailed financial models that justify the cost of the platform, he declines to disclose the figures, but notes, “It hasn’t been an astronomical investment by any stretch of the imagination.” Expenses include a one-time cost for EMR integration, ongoing charges for using the platform on a per-patient per-use basis, and marketing and promotion.

He also provides formulas to calculate estimated cost savings. They include:

  • Better utilization of providers’ time and related staffing expenses, by reducing each of 50,000 encounters from 15–18 minutes for a video encounter to two minutes for an asynchronous visit.
  • More appropriate ER usage. Out of 50,000 patients, 8% were redirected away from the ER. This figure is based on patient survey responses indicating they would have visited the ER had the platform not been available. With an average ER visit costing more than $500, says Robinson, “there’s a significant savings.”
  • Reduced workload at urgent care facilities. “Just assume 20,000 [of these patients] would have gone to an urgent care that we own,” he says. The time and expense of urgent care staffing is used to calculate the savings.

Patients also save money, says AVIA’s Lignell. Nationally, he says the typical cost for an asynchronous visit is about $20, and many health systems offer these visits for free. This compares to a national average cost of $50 for a video visit and $125 for an in-person visit.

The potential to grow beyond low-acuity care

There is one additional element that has contributed to the success of asynchronous visits for Presbyterian: a digital front door. Patients visit the pres.today webpage, enter their condition and insurance information, and are automatically directed to the appropriate level of care, one of which includes the option for online visits (using asynchronous care).

Because of the asynchronous initiative’s success, the health system is expanding its use beyond low-acuity care. Future plans involve developing new uses for the platform, capturing symptoms and history to create greater efficiencies for video visits and even in-person care.

“We have gotten religion around the idea of capturing as much information as you can in a sophisticated manner before the visit,” says Robinson. “You maximize the quality of care and the efficiency of the visit. We’re taking that idea and pushing it forward in multiple avenues of care here at Presbyterian.”

Value-based care will drive further adoption of these models, says Lignell. “The advantages from a total cost of care standpoint are huge,” he says. “It’s much less expensive to deliver care this way.” While the bulk of growth has been in low-acuity primary care, he says asynchronous care is now being explored in specialty and higher-acuity care, as well as in e-consults between providers.

“The asynchronous model is proving to be incredibly efficient for health systems,” says Lignell. “That’s one of the reasons why it has so much promise.”

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders. This story first ran on HealthLeaders Media.