How the pandemic prompted one clinic to embrace digital innovation

When the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered in-patient visits to a multispecialty practice in the San Francisco Bay Area in March of 2019, Olga Afanasiev, MD, PhD, and her colleagues saw an opportunity to create a new teledermatology workflow.

“Before COVID, we had zero use of teledermatology,” Dr. Afanasiev, a dermatologist at the practice, said during the annual meeting of the Pacific Dermatologic Association. “We didn’t do photography other than the required pre-biopsy photographs, and minimal evaluation of home photos, in response to the patients who say, ‘Wait, doc. Let me pull out my phone and show my photographs.”

During the very first days of the pandemic, in order to accommodate urgent patient requests, she and her colleagues used cloud services for patients to submit photos for concerning skin conditions or lesions, which were then discussed over commonly available video platforms. But they quickly realized that this would not work long-term so within two months, they created an electronic health record–integrated workflow that they are still using, she said.

Here’s how it works. If the patient request is deemed nonacute or does not require a full-body skin exam, the scheduling team offers that patient a store-and-video evaluation (SAVe) or an in-person visit. If a SAVe visit is requested, the patient is required to submit a photograph of his or her condition, then a medical assistant checks for the presence and quality of up to nine patient-submitted photos and contacts the patient if additional photos are required.

Immediately before the encounter, a medical assistant calls the patient to ensure video connectivity and performs a brief intake history. The patient and physician then connect via a video-capable platform – most commonly Vidyo, which is integrated with EPIC. After the visit, the provider notifies the scheduling team if any additional in-person or virtual follow up is required.

In a half day of practice, Dr. Afanasiev sees about 20 patients via video visits scheduled every 15 minutes. On a recent day, 55% of visits were related to acne and 10% were related to a mole check, which usually resulted in recommendation for biopsy. Most (70%) were existing patients, while 30% were new.

“There is no store-and-forward option at this time, meaning that patients can’t just submit a photo without a visit,” she said. “In addition, part of our consent is, if you don’t show up to your scheduled video visit, your photos will not be reviewed. The photos are linked to the video visit and uploaded to the patient’s chart. The rooming workflow is very similar to in clinic, except you’re at home and the medical assistant is remote.”

In an article recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. Afanasiev and her colleagues described their experience with this photo plus video teledermatology – SAVe – workflow between March 16, 2020, and Aug. 31, 2020. The researchers analyzed 74,411 dermatology cases encountered by 89 providers who cared for 46,024 patients during that time frame. Most of the encounters (79%) were in-person, while the remaining 21% were digital in nature – SAVe in 89% of cases, followed by telephone/message encounters.

At the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, SAVe encounters increased to 72% of all encounters from 0% prior to March 16, 2020, and were sustained at 12% when the clinic reopened in the summer of 2020. Over the study period, the clinic’s incorporation of SAVe increased care access to patients located in 731 unique ZIP codes in and near California. “We also have been able to retain many patients within our system,” Dr. Afanasiev said. “We have a large proportion of patients that require 2-3 hours of travel time to get to our clinic, so virtual visits allowed for increased rural access. It also allowed for flexibility for patients and providers.”

The new workflow also led to faster access to care. The time from referral to an in-person evaluation fell from an average of 56 days in 2019 to average of 27 days in 2020, while the wait time for a virtual visit was just 14 days in 2020. “We were able to see a diverse number of diagnostic categories with both in-person and virtual care, most commonly rashes, acne, dermal growths, and pigmentary disorders,” she said.

For clinicians interested in incorporating a SAVe-like system into their workflow, Dr. Afanasiev advises them to think seriously about consent. “You want to make sure patients understand what they’re getting themselves into,” she said. “You want to make sure they know that some diagnoses cannot be adequately addressed by teledermatology.” Photo quality is also important, she said. “Video quality is not good enough for most of our diagnoses, so photos are an important part of this evaluation. In this day and age, patients are actually pretty good photographers most of the time.”

She urges practices to carefully think about how they allow patients to submit photos, especially if photographs are not attached to a billable visit.

In her opinion, a good teledermatology platform should have trained support staff with the ability for patients to send photos prior to their visit, and should be safe, secure, and HIPAA compliant. It should also be app and browser compatible and have high resolution and low downtime.

“Into the future, I think it’s important to maintain teledermatology within our clinical practice, especially for remote monitoring of chronic skin diseases,” Dr. Afanasiev said. “Oftentimes we schedule 3- or 6-month follow-ups but often those do not correspond to the patients’ disease flare. They may have had an eczema or psoriatic flare 3 weeks prior, but we see them in clinic with clear skin, which makes it hard to judge how to tailor our treatment. It will also be important for us to understand the safety and security and legal implications of these new practice styles.”

She also referred to technological advances, which she said “will dovetail well with teledermatology, including robust at-home and commercial 3D virtual capture technology, machine learning algorithms for improved photos, and virtual biopsy technology.”

Dr. Afanasiev is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology Teledermatology Task Force. She had no relevant disclosures.

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