Kaiser Permanente doctors are making (virtual) house calls

With expanded telehealth options, Kaiser Permanente members get convenient access to safe and thorough care that meets the needs of the moment.

In the midst of a global pandemic, our daily vocabulary has expanded to include plenty of words we’ve rarely, if ever, used before: coronavirus, social distancing, mask fatigue, telehealth. The last is a welcome addition.

Telehealth—an all-encompassing term that describes any virtual visit with your doctor or care provider—has expanded exponentially this year and made accessing health care easier than ever. “There are many ways of interacting with one’s care team or doctor remotely,” says Dr. Ari Melmed, medical director of telehealth services for Kaiser Permanente Colorado and a 2020 5280 Top Doctor. “We want to make ourselves as available to our members as we can for their medical concerns.” Kaiser Permanente pivoted nearly 90 percent of its appointments to virtual during the height of the novel coronavirus crisis and had 20,000 telehealth interactions in the first six weeks of the pandemic.

“We’re flexing muscles we’ve had in place for years with our virtual care offerings. We were headed in this direction already and had many new virtual care offerings scheduled for implementation long before COVID-19,” said Dr. Melmed.

“My video visit was for palpitations and rapid, irregular heartbeat over several hours. The visit was prompt, voice and camera connection good. The doctor was very friendly, listened to my description of my symptoms, and asked good questions.”

Wilbur Norman knows firsthand the lifesaving capabilities of virtual care. Three years ago, the Aurora resident couldn’t kick his flu-like symptoms. He woke up on a Sunday morning slurring his words. His wife, a registered nurse, was alarmed, but Norman thought she was worrying too much. They signed on to Kaiser Permanente’s chat feature. The doctor they connected with identified Norman’s symptoms quickly, made connections to the local hospital to ensure immediate access, and told him to go to the emergency room straight away. “They were waiting to take me in the back [when I arrived]. I stayed in the ICU for three or four days. I had pneumonia. I was septic. I almost died,” says Norman. “Telehealth is the best thing Kaiser Permanente [offers]… It saved my life.”

“Excellent phone visit with my doctor. Diagnosed my health issue and patiently listened to my concerns! Very pleased with my doctor’s calmness and mannerisms.”

Messaging virtually with a doctor is one of myriad telehealth options offered by Kaiser Permanente. Members can remotely connect with their health care providers to ask questions via email, phone, or chat; through pre-scheduled phone or video appointments; and, as of July, on-demand video visits, which are now available 24/7. Prescriptions can also be filled by mail with no shipping costs or ordered for same-day or next-day delivery for a small fee (the fee was waved for COVID-19 patients). Plus, Kaiser Permanente’s integrated care system means any physician or nurse you connect with will have access to your full medical history.

“I really appreciate the coordination of care at Kaiser Permanente. Every doctor and specialist can access my records, and I don’t have to waste valuable time repeating medical histories. I received excellent and affordable care in a timely manner and am thrilled I made the switch to Kaiser Permanente.”

All of the providers are trained specifically in “web-side manner” to make sure you’re receiving the best care possible no matter how you’re reaching out. “Good communication between providers and patients is a very important piece of our care delivery…and we’re constantly trying to improve that communication because it is so important for our members to feel that they’ve been heard, that they’ve been understood, and that their concerns were addressed,” Dr. Melmed says.

So, how do you choose which virtual avenue is right for your medical inquiry? “It has to do with patient preference,” Dr. Melmed advises. And capabilities. If you’re at work, for example, chat may be the quickest, most private option. Still, Dr. Melmed says the team does try to steer patients toward video if possible. “We find that the video interaction is a more data-rich interaction. Being able to actually see a patient, to assess their facial expressions, their range of motion, their posture, their breathing efforts and so forth can really pass on a huge amount of information,” he says. (First-time users can complete a tech check before their video visit to ensure the connection is clear and working well.)

Becky Starr wanted the doctor to be able to see her during a recent appointment. She had an irritated, puffy bug bite above her right knee that she worried was infected. It was a late Friday afternoon. She signed into Kaiser Permanente’s member portal to ease her mind with an on-demand video visit. During the short check-in process, she was prompted to send a photo. This is great, she thought, I can save myself a visit to the doctor. Within minutes—and despite her self-proclaimed lack of technological know-how—she was face-to-face with a physician. “He saw the pictures. I put the camera on the floor, and I showed him my leg,” Starr says. The doctor told her she was fine and to let the bite heal on its own; he recommended some over-the-counter medicine to relieve itching. “It took all of five minutes—I was thrilled,” says the Denver resident. “I got my answers. I was comfortable in the diagnosis. And I went on my merry way. It was extremely easy and extremely smooth.”

“The video visit was easy to log in to, and I was able to get all my questions answered. The doctor was very patient and kind and addressed all my concerns. This option is nice, especially when you can’t leave the house.”

Convenience is one of the chief benefits of telehealth—especially in the midst of a public health crisis when we’re trying to limit our interactions with others. In many cases, you can get answers without having to leave your house. (Of course, it’s possible the doctor will recommend coming in for a visit or, in a serious situation, refer you to urgent care or the emergency room.) “I will always use it,” Norman says, and he urges others to do the same. “I believe it’s the best thing out there right now because you can talk directly with a doctor immediately. If you haven’t ever used it, try it out. I’m here now because of it.”

Expert Advice
To get the most out of your tele-health appointment, do the following before logging on:
• Check your Internet connection and make sure your speakers are working.
• Consider the lighting. When the light is coming from behind your camera, it can create shadows that make it hard for the doctor to see you clearly. Instead, Dr. Melmed suggests setting yourself up so the light is in front of your face.
• Think about what answers you’re seeking and choose the telehealth option that makes the most sense. If you want to discuss a rash, for instance, a video call is probably the best option. If you have a quick question, try chat.
• If you need or want someone else on the call or video—a spouse or a grandchild, perhaps—let the doctor know. He or she will help get them connected, too.
• Remember: The doctors are there to help. They’ll walk you through the process just like they do in person. You don’t need to be tech savvy to use tele-health.

Kaiser Permanente Colorado operates a network of more than 30 medical offices and affiliated plan hospitals throughout the state. To book a telehealth appointment, start here or for more information, visit kp.org/co