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From receiving 24-hour urgent care on your phone to high-risk pregnancy consultations for rural moms via video, COVID-19 has Northern Michigan’s top healthcare innovators stepping up to meet the demand for telemedicine solutions.

Featured in the 2021 issue of MyNorth Medical Insider.

It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a swift and unprecedented adoption of telehealth tools to help keep both patients and healthcare professionals safe. Development of products that were expected to take years happened in weeks. Connecting with healthcare professionals via phone or video call went from a convenient novelty to a necessary safety measure in short order. Necessity, along with emergency changes to HIPAA guidelines and insurance reimbursement, spurred rapid growth in the telemedicine world.

Today in Northern Michigan, patients have access to everything from 24-hour urgent care consultations to prenatal visits, all through telephone and video. Telehealth offers patients the option to enjoy access to safe, convenient and affordable care, virtually. For healthcare providers, telehealth enables specialists in more metropolitan areas to reach rural patients. Much uncertainty remains as to how changing regulations and safety measures will impact telehealth in the future, but it’s expected to have far-reaching impacts beyond the pandemic. One thing is certain: COVID-19 changed the game in healthcare technology, and healthcare leaders, as well as patients, across Northern Michigan are taking note.

McLaren’s New App Provides 24/7 Care

Due to the pandemic, more people are choosing to stay in Northern Michigan for a longer period. In response to this trend and safety concerns related to COVID-19, McLaren Northern Michigan piloted a telemedicine app during the early stages of the pandemic that’s now live across all McLaren hospitals. Through the app, patients can build and keep relationships with primary care doctors and specialists even when they’re not in Northern Michigan. The app, McLarenNow Virtual Visit, is accessible on smartphones, tablets or computers with a webcam.

“Through the height of COVID, we say 50 percent or more of our visits were telephonic and telemedicine,” says Brad Rider, McLaren Medical Group Director of Operations. “Telehealth is a game-changer because it gives patients and providers the ability to interact no matter where they are.”

The app also allows patients to connect with a board-certified physician anywhere, anytime for urgent care needs such as coronavirus screening, cold, flu, minor injuries, illness or skin conditions.

Remote Care for High-Risk Pregnancies

Munson Healthcare is innovating to provide high-quality obstetrics care for high-risk pregnancies across the North through a combination of in-person and remote specialist consultations. The goal? Increase access to care while decreasing travel for prospective moms in regions without the specialists found in Traverse City.

In the past, patients with high-risk pregnancies who required care from a maternal-fetal medicine specialist had to travel to Traverse City. This left patients to weigh travel costs against potential pregnancy complications. Telemedicine provides patients access to the care they need in the comfort of their community.

Munson, in partnership with Wayne State University, provides patients a questionnaire to proactively identify potentially high-risk pregnancies in need of a specialist provider. For those women in Alpena, Manistee and Cadillac, Munson leverages a telemedicine platform called Perinatal Access. The platform livestreams ultrasounds to a maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) specialist in Traverse City during a real-time video visit with the prospective mother. This saves patients travel time and increases care access because these prospective moms can “see” an MFM specialist without the drive to Traverse City. Munson has plans to expand the technology and hopes to have an outreach clinic in Sault Ste. Marie and one in the mid-region of Northern Michigan.

“Our goal is to serve patients where they are, as close to home and as safely as possible,” says Nurse Manager Melanie Thompson. “We are ensuring people have access to care that perhaps they would not have had because of travel involved.”

In addition to telemedicine resources for high-risk pregnancies, Munson also regularly offers on-site MFM specialist care in Cadillac and Manistee and offers 24/7 on-call coverage. Though Munson no longer delivers babies at Manistee Hospital, their OB/GYN practice does provide the full gamut of pre- and postnatal care.

“With Perinatal Access, I can provide an MFM consultation on the spot so patients don’t have to have sleepless nights worrying,” says Munson Healthcare Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist Dr. June Murphy. “If I see something during the ultrasound, they know within a few minutes.”

Improving Rural Medicine via Digital Tools

20Fathoms’ HealthSpark initiative is launching a rural telehealth accelerator in early 2021, hoping to position Northern Michigan in the center of solving rural healthcare’s most pressing challenges via digital healthcare tools. As an accelerator, HealthSpark, located in Traverse City, offers the kind of support needed for digital healthcare startups and early-stage companies to take root and grow at a time when rural medicine is looking for innovative solutions.

HealthSpark President Jack Miner is a leader in venture-stage technology startup companies and previously led the venture teams at Cleveland Clinic and the University of Michigan. Through HealthSpark, Miner sees an opportunity for Northern Michigan to become a healthcare hub, innovating and providing digital tools that can meet the increasing challenges found in rural healthcare.

“We are seeing telehealth work for providers and patients,” Miner says. “There is an opportunity to use this modality to address today’s most pressing challenges, and we believe rural health systems can lead the way.”

HealthSpark’s accelerator helps digital health startups, in part, by providing experts who can help the companies be successful in working with a rural hospital system, from reimbursement and supply chain to regulatory concerns and patient safety. The accelerator helps startups that address key issues impacting rural health, including socioeconomic and social determinants of health, care access, mental health resources and broadband internet access.

Find this article alongside others such as our healthcare COVID heroes, advances in stroke care and more in the free, digital edition of MyNorth Medical Insider below; or get Medical Insider in print each year for free when you subscribe to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, delivered to your door each month.

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner