One of the biggest healthcare systems serving North and South Carolina is seeing its latest investment in digital healthcare begin to bear fruit, especially for telehealth.

At Carolinas Healthcare System, which operates eight hospitals in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, the system is working to break down data and technology silos that give patients new ways to manage their health affairs and wellness online, says vice president of information and analytics services Pam Landis.

Carolinas first rolled out a digital healthcare portal—My Carolinas—about five years ago. The system hoped to take advantage of new consumer healthcare delivery technology and expand clinical care options for the 2.3 million patients the system sees annually, Landis says. Now Carolinas is adding new features to its patient portal and expanding into new areas to deliver more healthcare online including telehealth.

In August, Carolinas rolled out a new service that allows patients to electronically book a reservation at all 28 of its regional urgent care locations. So far patients have used the new digital healthcare tool to book about 17,000 reservations. Carolinas Health didn’t have a number for annual reservations, but about 350,000 patients move through the health system’s urgent care clinics annually.

For decades, urgent care clinics have been built as walk-in facilities, with no way of reserving a time to see a provider. That means that walk-in patients may have had to wait for as long as three hours to be seen by a doctor, says Dr. Christopher Branner, Carolinas Healthcare assistant specialty medical director, urgent care services.

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Now, patients can treat an urgent care visit the same way they treat checking in for an airline reservation or a rapid pick-up order at a restaurant by going online. By using a desktop computer, smartphone or tablet and logging onto Carolinashealthcare.org/urgentcare, patients can book an online reservation at a Carolinas Healthcare urgent care clinic. That includes scheduling a visit via the healthcare organization’s Apple or Android app.

Patients can schedule a visit daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., search by locations by ZIP code, by a range of distances up to 30 miles from their location and by clinics with a pediatrician and pharmacy on-site. With the ability to book a reservation online many patients now show up about 45 minutes or less before they are scheduled to see a doctor.

Once patients select an urgent care reservation time and opt in to receive text message updates, they will receive alerts as the reservation time nears, says Steve Jones, vice president, Carolinas HealthCare Systems urgent care division.

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“Through the new online reservation system, a parent tending to a sick child at home doesn’t have to leave home until it’s close to their urgent care reservation,” Jones says. “We’re cutting down on inefficient uses of time and accommodating everyone’s busy schedules, while creating a more seamless experience for our urgent care patients.”

It took Carolinas Healthcare about a year to install the online reservation using a service from an undisclosed vendor. During a pilot phase with three walk-in clinics the average wait time was reduced by nearly two-thirds, Branner says. In addition to speeding up time to see a doctor, the new reservation system also helps Carolinas Healthcare do a better job of monitoring workflow and patient traffic at its walk-in clinics, such as how long a patient waits from the time they check in at reception to seeing a provider.

Going forward Carolinas Healthcare plans a major advertising and public relations campaign to promote its latest digital healthcare program. Details are forthcoming but the campaign will involve traditional and social media advertising.

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Carolinas also is expanding its telehealth capability. In 2015 Carolinas rolled out Virtual Visits, a telehealth program for a range of conditions including seasonal allergies, bronchitis and flu, cold, cough, sinus and upper respiratory infections, conjunctivitis or pink eye skin conditions. The telehealth services uses technology from telehealth services provider American Well and costs patients $49 per visit. So far about 25,000 Carolinas’ patients have signed up to use the telehealth program and the health system has conducted about 5,200 telehealth or digital doctor visits. “Virtual healthcare lets us go to where the patients want to be treated,” says Dr. Charles Rich, an associate clinical professor of internal medicine at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a practicing internist who also set up and now runs Virtual Visits.

Programs such as Virtual Visits are a more convenient option for how some patients want to access healthcare. Of the more than 1,500 patients using the Virtual Visit program so far about 30% of the telehealth episodes of care have replaced a doctor’s office visit and 38% have replaced an urgent care visit. More than half of telehealth visits were conducted on mobile phones. “Carolinas HealthCare realizes the need, and support for, on-demand care,” Landis says. “More consumers are wanting products and services at their fingertips and that could be a quick check-in with a doctor via Virtual Visit, it could be the ability to check their lab results online through MyCarolinas, and for a great number of our patients, that means having access to healthcare in their neighborhood.”

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