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    2 Comments for this article
    Lacks Comparison to In-Person Visits
    Jonathan D. Linkous | American Telemedicine Association
    The recent study, Variation in Quality of Urgent Health Care Provided During Commercial Visits , provides an important first look at the growing use of the internet to deliver consultations for non-emergency acute illnesses. The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) estimates that there will be 1,250,000 such encounters this year alone.
    The findings of variation are disturbing and deserve further investigation. However, there is nothing in the article to suggest that variations in quality or adherence to standards within telehealth are any different than the variations seen within traditional in-person medicine. It is now well understood that variations in care
    exist across all of medicine (when comparing hospitals, medical offices, geographies, doctors within a single office setting, etc.). The fact that this was observed among telehealth organizations should not be surprising at all. Statistically significant variation between providers of virtual visits is only significant if that variation differs from in-person care.
    Regardless of the variation, as virtual visits become an important component in the delivery of care implementation of guidelines and standards are paramount. In response, last year ATA launched an accreditation program for sites providing virtual consultations to help assure patient safety, transparency of operations and adherence to relevant laws and regulations. One essential step toward accreditation is assuring network providers adhere to established guidelines in decision making. Almost 300 sites have been determined to be eligible for accreditation.
    We hope studies like this bring on more research and subsequent opportunity to bring improvement to telemedicine. We need more data, and the funding to study it, to fuel the growth and adoption of telehealth.
    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Chief Executive Officer, American Telemedicine Association
    Alternative method of virtual care provides superior adherence to guidelines
    Rebecca Hafner-Fogarty, MD, MBA, FAAFP,Kevin L. Smith, DNP, FNP, FAANP | Zipnosis, Inc.
    The original investigation article “Variation in Quality of Urgent Health Care Provided During Virtual Visits” adds much-needed data to the limited body of research available in the rapidly evolving field of virtual health care.

    While the virtual care company that we represent, Zipnosis, was not included in the study, we read with interest the wide variation in quality that Schoenfeld and colleagues identified among 8 virtual visit services treating 6 common acute illnesses. Of note, the companies in the study primarily provide outsourced care from providers outside of the patient’s health system — a fragmented model that may have affected quality
    and guideline adherence. They also rely on synchronous (live) systems, such as direct-to-video-based telemedicine.

    An alternative to this model that provides continuity of care is an asynchronous virtual health platform connecting patients directly to local providers within their community’s health system — typically MDs/DOs/NPs/PAs staffing its urgent care centers with access to the patient’s EMR. This innovative approach to mainstream medicine leverages existing clinical capacity and supports efficient, high-quality care. In addition, unlike live video-based telemedicine, an asynchronous (store-and-forward) system means the patient’s information is added to the clinical notes prior to assessment — eliminating the possibility of a busy clinician missing a key question.

    This model guides patients through structured, adaptive interviews developed from national best practice guidelines. A systematic method also leads providers through curated pathways based on patients’ medical histories. Treatment options are limited to the most appropriate choices supported by evidence-based protocols, thereby reducing variability.

    This approach results in consistently high-quality care, especially when compared with the outcomes reported in the Schoenfeld study, which revealed guideline-adherent care ranging from 34.4% to 66.1%. Variation among the 8 companies included in the study was even greater for viral pharyngitis and acute rhinosinusitis, at 12.8% to 82.1%.

    In contrast, data collected from 1,760 patient visits at two large U.S. health systems using the Zipnosis platform demonstrated a >95% adherence to national best practice guidelines(1,2) for the treatment of acute rhinosinusitis. These data have been reported to a state medical board and presented at major informatics and telehealth conferences.(3,4)

    With each virtual visit saving on average $175, the delivery of convenient, guideline-adherent care by local providers embodies the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s “Triple Aim”: To optimize health system performance by improving patient experience, improving population health, and reducing the per capita cost of healthcare.

    1. Rosenfeld RM, Piccirillo JF, Chandrasekhar SS, et al. Clinical practice guideline (update): adult sinusitis. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015;152(2 Suppl):S1–S39.
    2. Chow AW, Benninger MS, Brook I, et al; for the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). IDSA clinical practice guideline for acute bacterial rhinosinusitis in children and adults. Clin Infect Dis. 2012;54(8):1041–1045.
    3. Smith KL. Adherence to sinusitis treatment guidelines in the evisit setting: a quality improvement project. Presented at: iHealth 2016 Clinical Informatics Conference [American Medical Informatics Association]; May 4–6, 2016. Minneapolis, MN.
    4. Smith KL. Sinusitis treatment guideline adherence in the e-visit setting: a performance improvement project [Part of: Online care measurements and guidance session]. Presented at: American Telemedicine Association 2016 Annual Conference; May 14–17, 2016. Minneapolis, MN.
    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Both authors are employees of Zipnosis, Inc.
    Original Investigation
    May 2016

    Variation in Quality of Urgent Health Care Provided During Commercial Virtual Visits

    Author Affiliations
    • 1Center for Healthcare Value, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)
    • 2Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, UCSF
    • 3Department of Neurosurgery, UCSF
    • 4Department of Medicine, UC (University of California) Berkeley–UCSF Joint Medical Program
    • 5Department of Pediatrics, UCSF
    • 6Department of Medicine, UCSF
    • 7Department of Emergency Medicine, UCSF
    • 8Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
    • 9Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, UCSF
    JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(5):635-642. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.8248

    Importance  Commercial virtual visits are an increasingly popular model of health care for the management of common acute illnesses. In commercial virtual visits, patients access a website to be connected synchronously—via videoconference, telephone, or webchat—to a physician with whom they have no prior relationship. To date, whether the care delivered through those websites is similar or quality varies among the sites has not been assessed.

    Objective  To assess the variation in the quality of urgent health care among virtual visit companies.

    Design, Setting, and Participants  This audit study used 67 trained standardized patients who presented to commercial virtual visit companies with the following 6 common acute illnesses: ankle pain, streptococcal pharyngitis, viral pharyngitis, acute rhinosinusitis, low back pain, and recurrent female urinary tract infection. The 8 commercial virtual visit websites with the highest web traffic were selected for audit, for a total of 599 visits. Data were collected from May 1, 2013, to July 30, 2014, and analyzed from July 1, 2014, to September 1, 2015.

    Main Outcomes and Measures  Completeness of histories and physical examinations, the correct diagnosis (vs an incorrect or no diagnosis), and adherence to guidelines of key management decisions.

    Results  Sixty-seven standardized patients completed 599 commercial virtual visits during the study period. Histories and physical examinations were complete in 417 visits (69.6%; 95% CI, 67.7%-71.6%); diagnoses were correctly named in 458 visits (76.5%; 95% CI, 72.9%-79.9%), and key management decisions were adherent to guidelines in 325 visits (54.3%; 95% CI, 50.2%-58.3%). Rates of guideline-adherent care ranged from 206 visits (34.4%) to 396 visits (66.1%) across the 8 websites. Variation across websites was significantly greater for viral pharyngitis and acute rhinosinusitis (adjusted rates, 12.8% to 82.1%) than for streptococcal pharyngitis and low back pain (adjusted rates, 74.6% to 96.5%) or ankle pain and recurrent urinary tract infection (adjusted rates, 3.4% to 40.4%). No statistically significant variation in guideline adherence by mode of communication (videoconference vs telephone vs webchat) was found.

    Conclusions and Relevance  Significant variation in quality was found among companies providing virtual visits for management of common acute illnesses. More variation was found in performance for some conditions than for others, but no variation by mode of communication.