Telehealth and telemedicine have become ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic, and among the digital approaches to health care that has gained popularity is ConferMED, an entity created at the Weitzman Institute, the research branch of Community Health Center Inc. (CHC) in Middletown, Connecticut.
ConferMED, which was originally called Community eConsult Network, offers asynchronous teleconsulting between primary care practitioners and specialists in more than 40 disciplines. In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal Senior Enterprise Editor Phil Hall discusses how ConferMED operates with its director, Dr. Daren Anderson, who is also vice president and chief quality officer at CHC.
What was the genesis of ConferMED and how does it approach health care?
“We started doing the research on this system and started building it in Middletown in 2010. And we incorporated the company in 2017. We did a whole series of research trials and basically designed how it all should work. And then studied it to demonstrate that it was safe and effective and then created the company. We incorporated it originally as the Community Concept Network and we renamed ourselves ConferMED last year.
“ConferMED is comprehensive telehealth provider that specializes in what’s technically known as an asynchronous telehealth — which is a very exciting title and very sexy, but essentially what we do is we connect primary care providers with our virtual network of specialists to help them manage challenging cases. This was an important intervention before we had COVID-19 in that a lot of primary care providers see a lot of complicated patients and have questions that a specialist can help them with.
“The interface between a primary care practice and a specialist is fraught with a lot of issues: There are long wait times when information isn’t exchanged well. We allow communication back and forth over a simple platform, a primary care practice could ask questions to a cardiologist or an orthopedist, submit cases to them and get advice.
“Now that everyone is home and no one is going in to see anybody anywhere, we’re finding that there’s even more of a need for that type of connection. We provide a virtual network of specialists that help support primary care providers to manage their panel of patients in regional or rural health facilities around the country.”
How far does your network spread?
“Were currently in 18 states and we’re adding states and practices pretty much every week now. At last count, we provide access to about 1.3 million patients. Connecticut is one of our busiest states and California and Washington state are two other states most heavily utilizing the platform right now.
“We have focused heavily on what’s often referred to as the health care safety net — that is a combination of rural and urban practices that take care of medically underserved patients. We started off focusing on the issue of limited access, safety net practices and Medicaid patients and those who are uninsured and have trouble finding specialists willing to see them. By providing this virtual connection, we made it easier to get information and get those patients counseling.
“But what we found with a lot of the research that we’ve done is there’s also a significant cost implication. One of the major contributors to the increase in health care costs is the increase in the cost of where specialty care specialists tend to work: in technology-driven, procedure-driven practices and hospital systems. And what our data has shown is that when you connect virtually the way we do, you can keep more of the patients in primary care and not send them into the specialty care system that leads to pretty significant savings.
“Primary care is the most low-cost part of the health care continuum and our goals are to strengthen primary care and to help keep more of their patients in primary care and reduce the need to expose them to the specialty care system.”
Let’s say I’m a doctor in a rural clinic in Montana, and I wanted to get a the input of a cardiologist in Connecticut. Is this something which is available 24/7 or do you have to make reservations?
“They’re not live direct conversations. In a typical primary care practice, if I have a patient who I would like to get the cardiologist input on, I will submit a referral. I will probably, in most cases, fax over the patient’s name, my question and some of the information from the medical record. And that cardiologist’s office will call the patient to set up an appointment and bring them in three or four weeks later, and then they’ll fax me a note back saying what they thought.
“We do that exact same thing what I just described, but we do it virtually — the information is transmitted directly from their primary care doctor to us. Within a day, our cardiologist reviews all the information that was submitted and then offers the input and the advice that they have. Sometimes their advice will be you need to send this person over because they need to see them and need to do a cardiac catheterization. But often, probably more than 60% or 70% of the time now, they’re able to review the information in this and send back their advice. If the specialist does think face-to-face is needed, they can give advice about what you want to do in the meantime.
“Our motto is confer before you refer. And that’s basically what we do. We set up a platform that lets those primary care providers confer with a specialist. And you mentioned Connecticut and Montana — we have specialists that are from all over the country, licensed in different states living in different states. And so, the cardiologist in the Montana example might be from Washington state or might be from California — each state has different sort of rules and regulations about the who can do these types of consults.”
How has ConferMED approached the COVID-19 pandemic?
“We had a really strong case for why this is a good service to have before COVID-19. But what COVID-19 has done is kind of forced everybody to stay home. We used to say don’t send your patient into a specialist if they don’t really need to go. Now, we’re trying to keep everybody home. We’re getting outreach from across the country from primary care practices.”
What are your ultimate plans for this service?
“I think COVID-19 is presenting an opportunity to take a new look at the way health care is delivered. Our goal is to be a foundational element in a new virtual health system. I think many patients who have experience doing direct telehealth with their providers are going to like it, and they’re going to start asking for these types of things.
“I think a lot of boundaries are going to be broken down. Many states have relaxed their telehealth guidelines. Our ultimate goal is to grow and to become the source of virtual consultations and specialty around as many practices as we’re able to.”