Editor’s note: Hospitalists told us about process changes that their teams have implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shyam Odeti, MD, SFHM
Ballad Health (Bristol, Tenn.)(Dr. Odeti was a hospitalist at Ballad Health during the period he describes below. He is currently chief of hospital medicine at Carilion Clinic, Roanoke, Va.)
Ballad Health is a 21-hospital health system serving 1.2 million population in 21 counties of rural Appalachia (northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, western North Carolina, and Kentucky). We saw a significant spike in COVID-19 numbers beginning in October 2020. We were at a 7.9% test positivity rate and 89 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Oct. 1, which rapidly increased to over 18% positivity rate and over 250 hospitalizations by mid-November. This alarming trend created concerns about handling the future inpatient volumes in an already strained health system.
There were some unique challenges to this region that were contributing to the increased hospitalizations. A significant part of the population we serve in this region has low health literacy, low socioeconomic status, and problems with transportation. Telehealth in an outpatient setting was rudimentary in parts of this region.
Ballad Health developed Safe At Home to identify lower-acuity COVID-19 patients and transition them to the home setting safely. This in turn would prevent their readmissions or return visits to the ED by implementing comprehensive oversight to their disease course. We achieved this through a collaborative approach of the existing teams, case management, telenurse team, primary care providers, and hospitalist-led transitional care. We leveraged the newly implemented EHR Epic and telehealth under the leadership of Ballad Health’s chief medical information officer, Dr. Mark Wilkinson.
Among the patients diagnosed with COVID-19 in ED and urgent care, low acuity cases were identified and enrolled into Safe At Home. Patients were provided with a pulse oximeter, thermometer, and incentive spirometer. They received phone calls the next 2 days from the telenurse team for a comprehensive interview, followed by daily phone calls during the first week. If no concerns were raised initially, then calls were spaced to every 3 days after that for up to 2 weeks. Any complaints or alarming symptoms would trigger a telehealth visit with primary care physicians, transitional care clinics, or a hospitalist.
The Safe At Home program was highly successful – in the past 5 months, over 1,500 patients were enrolled and hundreds of admissions were likely avoided. As we feared, the positivity rate in our region went close to 35% and inpatient COVID-19 census was over 350, with ICU utilization over 92%. If not for our innovative solution, this pandemic could have easily paralyzed health care in our region. Our patients also felt safe, as they were monitored daily and had help one call away, 24/7.
This innovation has brought solutions through technological advancements and process improvement. Safe At Home was also instrumental in breaking down silos and developing a culture of collaboration and cohesiveness among the inpatient, outpatient, and virtual teams of the health system. Lessons learned from this initiative can be easily replicated in the management of several chronic diseases to provide safe and affordable care to our patients in the comfort of their homes.