About 8,000 Spectrum Health patients have downloaded the newest MedNow app so far and on a recent day before the Thanksgiving holiday about 82 patients scheduled a video visit, most typically for a cold or the flu.

A large Western Michigan health system believes the best approach to building mobile health apps and making telehealth more consumer-friendly is to “do it yourself.”

That DIY focus is exactly how Spectrum Health, a non-profit health system with 12 hospitals headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., revamped its app for MedNow, its consumer telehealth program. Its aim was to give patients living in Michigan new ways to schedule and conduct a video doctor visit for 19 minor health conditions such as cough, flu and colds.

Many hospitals offer consumer telehealth. More than three-quarters of U.S hospitals and health systems either have consumer telehealth in place or plan to launch a program next year, according to a recent survey from telehealth provider Teladoc Inc. Many hospitals that offer telehealth for walk-in clinic or minor health issues typically use a commercial service provider—many with their own cadre of doctors—to give patients options for digital doctor visits.

But at Spectrum Health, which has built and operated its own consumer telehealth program since 2014, the emphasis is on building and maintaining the technology and process in-house—and making telehealth a more mobile experience. “We would rather build versus buy because that way we control our brand and the patient experience,” says Spectrum Health senior director of MedNow Joe Brennan.

We would rather build versus buy because that way we control our brand and the patient experience.

Last month, after nearly eight months of developing and testing, Spectrum Health rolled out an updated Apple and Google app for its MedNow telehealth program that lets patients use their mobile device to find and book a video doctor visit, see the physician online and receive follow-up care instructions.  The first version of the internally developed MedNow app used a “stripped-down” webinar tool from Cisco Systems Inc.

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But the app only let patients conduct video visits with the doctor. To schedule a visit, patients had to call a customer service center or use the Spectrum Health digital portal to find available times and book the appointment. Once the appointment was booked, a Spectrum Health customer service representative sent the patient an e-mail confirmation with an embedded video link and log-in information.

With the updated MedNow app patients now have a “one-stop shopping” experience, Brennan says.

Joe Brennan

Spectrum Health has a long history in digital healthcare. In 2006 Spectrum Health began posting average prices for many of its common procedures on its website and in 2008 added information on what Medicare, Medicaid and commercial health insurers paid the health system on average for procedures. In 2009 Spectrum also launched an online cost estimator based on the average prices listed for nearly 250 adult procedures.

Two years later, Spectrum updated its MySpectrum digital healthcare portal with features that allow patients to set up a family account, access benefits and eligibility information from Spectrum’s Priority Health plan, view growth charts for children and see immunization records. The MySpectrum portal also enables patients to view lab results, e-mail their doctor, renew prescriptions, request appointments for routine doctor visits and preregister for some procedures, pay bills for hospital services, and track health conditions, allergies and medications.

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In 2015 Spectrum introduced MedNow, a consumer telehealth program for online care for cold and flu, earache, pink eye, sprains and strains, sinus problems and other less serious conditions. MedNow also includes online consultations for cardiology, diabetes, infectious disease, wound care, vascular services, oncology and other follow-up care, and virtual tools that track and review patient heart rates and other important data.

But these days about 90% of digital healthcare traffic is coming to Spectrum Health via a mobile device. “It’s how people live and this new app for us is a milestone,” Brennan says. “We believe Spectrum Health is the first health system in the country to launch its own consumer-facing telemedicine app.”

Since launch consumer telehealth about three years ago, Spectrum Health has conducted about 17,000 digital doctor visits through MedNow. For some patients covered by plans such as Blue Cross, the cost of the digital doctor visit might be free and is $40 for patients paying out-of-pocket, the health plan says. The typical consumer telehealth patient is a female age 36

The updated MedNow app, which is built using video conference technology from Vidyo integrated into the Spectrum Health’s internally designed mobile health system, has been popular since going live last month. About 8,000 Spectrum Health patients have downloaded the app and on a recent day before the Thanksgiving holiday about 82 patients scheduled a video visit, most typically for the a cold or the flu. “It was our busiest single day of activity in three and one half years,” Brennan says.

The biggest challenge of the new telehealth project was in building versions for Apple and Google at the same time. “Each system has different operating specifications so there were some long nights on that one,” Brennan says. By next summer Spectrum Health, which has a telehealth staff of 19 providers including physicians and physician’s assistants, expects to add more acute care conditions such as behavioral conditions, Brennan says.

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Compared to the cost of a patient seeking care through the emergency room or a walk-in clinic, Spectrum Health saves about $124 per episode of patient care when the visit can be done through telehealth, the health system says. “Consumer telehealth lowers costs so we can move away from fee-for-service care to value-based care,” Brennan.

Spectrum Health also made its updated MedNow app simple to use with just three prompts on a dropdown menu compared with up to 30 fields for some commercial telehealth applications—and with a human touch, Brennan says. Once patients begin the sign-up process they are connected via the app to a service rep that can assist with making the appointment and in taking payment information, including credit cards. “This is all about being consumer-focused,” he says.

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