Dignity Health hospitals in Southern California have started using virtual doctor visits as emergency rooms across the state and country are being flooded with patients worried about the coronavirus.
The hospital group, which has a location in Glendale, has partnered with telemedicine company American Well to launch Virtual Care Anywhere, which allows patients to be checked out by a doctor before ever setting foot in a hospital.
These virtual visits can be done via a phone call or with a cellphone app.
While Dignity Health hospitals have used telemedicine before, typically to immediately treat stroke patients or for specialty services, this is the first time it’s being used for emergency care.
Nicholas Testa, chief physician executive for Dignity’s Southwest Division, said by reducing visits to the emergency room first, these virtual meetings will help doctors and patients stay safe as cases of patients infected with the novel coronavirus continue to rise.
“They can talk to a physician and understand if this is something they can stay at home for a few days to see what’s going on or do they really need to come into the emergency room,” he said.
People who use the app may not necessarily be connected to a local doctor as Testa said the platform relies on available doctors within American Well’s network, although he did say they would typically be in California.
Requests for a virtual visit are usually returned within 30 minutes and cost $35. However, Testa said if a patient is suffering from respiratory issues and believes they may have the coronavirus, the fee is waived with a special promotional code, “COVID19.”
He said hospitals can better prepare to receive patients if they do need to be treated for the coronavirus after being screened.
“We can meet them wearing the appropriate protective equipment and bring them to an isolation room and start to work on them,” he said.
Testa added that by having a telemedicine platform in place now, it can help prepare hospitals and medical staff for a potential surge in patients with the coronavirus.
Testa declined to comment on whether Dignity Health Glendale has received any patients who have the coronavirus.
Los Angeles County, as a whole, has reported 538 cases as of Monday and eight deaths, while across the state, there have been 2,133 confirmed cases and 40 deaths reported.
New York has been hit with the largest number of cases in the country, with more than 20,000 people testing positive for the virus. Testa said what’s happening across the country could be a harbinger for what may happen in California.
“We know what is potentially coming with what we’re seeing in New York and other cities with a much more significant bloom of COVID-19, so this telehealth platform is invaluable,” he said.
“Having this ready now will prepare us for what could happen in the future,” he added.
For more information about the telehealth platform, Testa said patients can visit dignityhealth.org/virtualcareanywhere or call (855) 356-8053 to set up a virtual visit.