Picture of Health: Telemedicine has taken off at Munson

Telemedicine has taken off.

From its obscure beginnings, the technology has been a boon for those avoiding potential COVID-19 infection sites – like hospitals and doctors’ offices.

“Since COVID, it has really taken off,” said Chelsea Szafranski, assistant director of digital health at Munson Healthcare.

Szafranski started her position at Munson in February. She said before the novel coronavirus, the telehealth industry was largely in its infancy due to several factors, including consumer reluctance to embrace it and medical and regulations which hampered it.

Suddenly, not only was it practical, it was preferred by both staff and patients.

Chelsea Szafranski said teleheath appointments accounted for more than half of healthcare visits in the midst of the pandemic.

“In physicians’ offices we couldn’t do office visits,” she said. “We had to get video (capability) in a couple weeks.”

The convenience and time savings are what appeal, said Szafranski.

“It’s really convenient, saves time and money,” she said. “If it’s available, it’s a good option.”

There’s the rub, especially in rural northern Michigan. While internal accessibility to telehealth is increasingly available at Munson and its affiliates, that’s only true for patients with internet access.

One solution for those without is using public Wi-Fi sites, such as libraries.

Some libraries, such as Elk Rapids, are going one better. They are allowing patrons to check out AT&T hotspots just like they would check out a book or other media. That allows them to hook up their phone, tablet or laptop wherever there is a strong enough signal.

Szafranski said ensuring Wi-Fi in Munson-affiliated facilities is another objective. That way, someone who needs some in-person attention can see their physician, but if they then need a specialist, they can visit one without driving elsewhere.

Navigating such a brave new world means Szafranski must keep up with all the developments in tech.

“I spend a lot of time on webinars to see what other health systems are doing,” she said.

She also works with Connected Nation Michigan, the state’s arm of a nationwide advocacy group for broadband access.

Asked what a typical day looks like, she said there really isn’t one. She regularly attends a number of meetings, where she finds out what is working and what isn’t. Like many others, she is often working from home, though she does go into the office a couple days a week. She is part of a project group, which also includes representatives from other departments, such as IT, surgical and practice managers.

Szafranski studied business as an undergrad and earned an M.A. in health administration.

“I like the strategy and making a positive impact,” she said of the healthcare field.

Like others, she had a connection in the region before moving north from the Detroit area: Her parents had a place in Gaylord. Her husband – an emergency room physician who works in Cadillac and Grayling – was previously part of Beaumont Health in southeastern Michigan before taking a position with Munson.

It’s likely the focus on delivering healthcare digitally will continue in the years ahead. Telehealth visits could surpass one billion by the end of this year, with 900 million of them related to the pandemic, according to a Forrester report published by the human resources and workforce management news site HR Dive.

“It’s expanded the scope (of medicine),” she said.

Szafranski said in the midst of the pandemic, teleheath appointments accounted for more than half of healthcare visits. Since then, it has dropped to about 10%, though behavioral health visits are still at the 90% level.

“We’re just trying to figure out what it will look like,” she said.

Those appointments that don’t require a physical examination, labs or radiology will be particularly appropriate for virtual visits. Szafranski believes that ultimately teleheath will become a standard part of the industry.

“In the long term, 20-30% of primary (care),” she said.