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The doctor will Zoom you now
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The doctor will Zoom you now

Telehealth usage soared during COVID-19 — and experts believe it's here to stay.

As COVID-19 first surged in April 2020, stay-at-home mandates impacted all aspects of life, including health care visits. That month alone, use of telehealth services soared 78 times over pre-pandemic rates, according to a report by McKinsey & Company, because of increased interest by providers and patients as well as regulatory changes that allowed for improved access and reimbursement.

Zoom — the communications platform that has become synonymous with streaming video calls — experienced an even greater increase in that same time period. In June 2020, close to 3 million consults took place through Zoom's 100 top EPIC integrations. With its simple, reliable interface that patients — and health care workers — already knew, Zoom became the go-to for health care offices everywhere.

"I think the beauty of Zoom and health care is it's the same experience, the same primary look and feel and simplicity people have come to feel comfortable with," said Heidi West, who is head of health care at Zoom. "It's the same product that is used for our health care virtual visit, telehealth or any of the business or clinical needs within a health care organization."

"There have been a lot of different creative, innovative ways to engage with patients and providers. It's kind of limitless, what people consider and leverage"

In fact, Zoom had been working with medical offices and health care organizations prior to the pandemic. Zoom for Healthcare was specifically designed to fit into a health care provider's workflow. With the right security and privacy tools, it helps health care customers enable a HIPAA-compliant program; allows them to meet with patients virtually; enables workflow within electronic health records (Zoom integrates into the EPIC system); and lets them meet, message and chat with colleagues. Zoom for Healthcare includes Zoom Phone, a cloud phone solution that integrates with the Zoom platform, so that health care team members can also make and receive phone calls, chat, participate in video meetings and share content from their Zoom desktop and mobile apps — all without revealing their personal phone number. Demand for this kind of solution is growing, with 2 million Zoom Phone seats sold to date.

For additional capability, the new Zoom Phone Appliance desktop device combines the functionality of Zoom Phone with the features of a multi-line phone. Together, these elements were designed for ease of use and convenience, both for patients and practitioners. Existing partnerships and familiarity helped Zoom scale quickly and respond to the exponential increase in telehealth visits throughout the pandemic.

Making it easier for health workers — and patients

As COVID-19 ravaged the country, mental health suffered. According to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40.9% of people surveyed in June 2020 reported experiencing an adverse mental or behavioral health condition. Telehealth was critical in connecting patients and therapists quickly.

But in the early days of the pandemic, psychologists' offices such as Pike Creek Psychological Center in Delaware were left scrambling to meet the demand. Initially, the team was using a free telehealth service, but technical glitches, including screens that kept freezing and connectivity challenges, became a problem. After some searching, Judi Willetts, Ph.D., the center's co-director, signed up for Zoom for Healthcare. She said that the patients appreciate it because they're already familiar with the platform. And the therapists like it because they can carry out so many functions in one place, alleviating a lot of stress. "It's made things more streamlined," Willetts said. "Before, we'd go to Slack to send a message, iPlum to text a client, doxy.me for telehealth. Now, we open the Zoom app, and that's where we work all day long."

Zoom has offered immeasurable flexibility in all types of health care settings, said West. She ticked off a few examples: the doctor-patient interaction in which medical professionals meet with patients virtually for physical or mental health reasons; the doctor-doctor interaction, in which one doctor is in a room with a patient while communicating via tablet with other specialists outside of the room, thereby preserving personal protective equipment; families interacting with loved ones who are alone in a hospital room or nursing home; and so many other scenarios. "There have been a lot of different creative, innovative ways to engage with patients and providers. It's kind of limitless, what people consider and leverage," said West.

Zoom Phone has also helped build social connections within a New York City nonprofit called Life Story Club, a storytelling group for older adults aimed at combating isolation and loneliness. The donated Zoom Phone licenses were used to connect homebound adults so that they could interact with other members in the group easily, without having to use a dial-in number or code. That's especially helpful for group members living with visual impairments or experiencing Alzheimer's or dementia, said Lily Zhou, Life Story Club's founder. "We use Zoom to host these one-hour club sessions every week," said Zhou. "Each week, facilitators reach out to participants with a friendly call shortly before each meeting and are then able to call-merge participants into the scheduled Zoom conference. Receiving a friendly call and hearing our facilitator's voice rather than an automated voice message is also critical in building trust as well as comfort with technology and remote programming."

For West, hearing these kinds of heartwarming stories makes it easier to get through a year filled with tragedy. "I've never cried so much in customer calls, as they share their experiences about what Zoom was able to do," she said. "Those who might have been the most vulnerable and isolated in their homes were able to engage and receive care. For family members barred from visiting loved ones in the hospital, Zoom has allowed them the opportunity to say goodbye."

West added that it's been a great honor to play a role in helping to connect people, often at a time when they need it most. "We don't take that lightly. It's something we find tremendous responsibility in and are grateful to be a part of," she said. "It's humbling."

Zooming ahead

Today, telehealth visits are no longer 78 times the pre-pandemic level. According to McKinsey & Company, they've stabilized at around 38 times the early 2020 numbers. That's still a significant change, and West expects telehealth to remain a popular choice for reasons related to access, convenience and safety. Zoom, she added, will continue to be a household name when it comes to innovation and health.

"Zoom was not a temporary solution to a pandemic. It was just the beginning of our story in the work that we're doing to improve and enhance the communication experience in health care," said West. "We are just getting started in the work that we're doing."