The COVID-19 pandemic turned Asian Health Services upside down overnight.
“Immediately after the initial shelter-in-place order, we knew the safest thing to do for everyone was to transition most patients to telehealth visits,” said Anita Chang, MD, site director of Asian Health Services (AHS) in Oakland, which recently received a grant from Kaiser Permanente to support virtual care. “Fewer staff and fewer patients on site and in clinic meant that we could keep more patients and more staff healthy during the pandemic by reducing any possible exposures to COVID-19.”
AHS, a federally qualified health center that provides care regardless of a patient’s income, insurance, or immigration status, is one of the dozens of organizations that was awarded a Kaiser Permanente Virtual Care Innovation Network grant earlier this year. The center, which serves more than 50,000 patients a year, did not offer telehealth visits before March 2020, but it quickly set a goal of having 90% of patient visits by telehealth, and it achieved that the following month.
Telehealth is the delivery of health care services by phone, video, or other virtual technologies. Although the availability of COVID-19 vaccines now makes it safer to have in-person clinic visits, AHS still sees about 66% of patients through telehealth because of high demand as patients like the convenience.
Kaiser Permanente has a long history of supporting safety net clinics like AHS through grant funding, technical assistance, and initiatives such as Preventing Heart Attacks and Strokes Every Day (PHASE) in the community. The PHASE initiative reached its end after 15 years in 2021. To respond to the pressing needs of safety net providers during the pandemic, Kaiser Permanente launched the Virtual Care Innovation Network or VCIN this past spring.
“I am incredibly proud of the strong relationships we have forged over the years with our safety net partners to improve the health of vulnerable populations,” said Jean Nudelman, senior director of Community Health at Kaiser Permanente Northern California. “The PHASE in the community initiative supported the safety net to improve health outcomes, and we believe our Virtual Care Innovation Network will continue to do so by strengthening the telehealth capabilities of our safety net partners.”
Sustaining the wave of the future
The Virtual Care Innovation Network is funded by Kaiser Permanente and was designed in partnership with the Center for Care Innovations, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, and primary care associations in the states where Kaiser Permanente provides care.
In early 2021, Kaiser Permanente awarded $2.37 million to 59 safety net organizations in 7 states that will participate in the network, improving access to high-quality virtual care services for low-income patients. It awarded an additional $1.45 million to 18 organizations, which will advocate for telehealth policies that will enable safety net providers to strengthen and expand telehealth services.
“We’re pleased to support the Virtual Care Innovation Network because it is enabling safety net providers to accelerate the work they’ve started, learn from peers and experts, and receive support for developing approaches to sustain virtual care,” said Yvette Radford, vice president for External and Community Affairs, Kaiser Permanente Northern California.
“Virtual care is the wave of the future, and funding from Kaiser Permanente will help us to continue to improve our virtual care,” said Dr. Chang, who led the transition to telemedicine at AHS. “Using technology can make care more convenient, improves communication between patients and their providers, and we hope it will also empower and engage patients.”