Health First’s Virtual Visits were in their infancy when COVID-19 struck. Now, they’re something patients and providers have grown to love, pandemic or not.

Shirley Strader had been having severe head-aches for a few weeks when she and her husband, Jim, decided it was time to get things checked out. But given the times, they were apprehensive about going into a medical office during a public health crisis.

“We, of course, didn’t want to go in because of COVID,” said Jim.

So, they signed up for a Virtual Visit with Health First Medical Group, unsure of what to expect.

Dr. Jayde George, Virtual Care Medical Director for Health First, Photography by Jason Hook

Effective & Efficient Care

The couple visited virtually with physician assistant Danielle Miller to discuss Shirley’s debilitating headaches. Shirley was sent to Health First’s Viera Medical Plaza for a CT scan. Results came back quickly, and Miller called the couple within a couple of hours. By 4:30 p.m., Shirley had a prescription and was on the road to recovery.

“It was just flawless,” Jim said of his and Shirley’s exceptional experience with Danielle Miller, PA. “This just went so well, and she was relieved of her symptoms by that night.”

Jim was so impressed, he turned to Virtual Visits for follow-up with his internal medicine provider, too. He loved the efficiency. Normally, he travels to Health First Medical Group’s Gateway facility. Instead of having to drive there, park, walk into the building, getting in line to check in, waiting, filling out paperwork and more, he was able to do it all online – and still get the care he needed.

“Wow, how efficient is this for me, and it saves me money and time,” Jim explained. “You are not around all those people who have colds and maybe COVID. Maybe it doesn’t make a lot of difference to doctors, but it makes a whale of a difference to us. You’re not driving down there, around sick people and waiting. It’s like it bypasses a whole bunch of it. I think it’s marvelous. It is really great for us.”

Compassionate & Quality Virtual Attention

Dr. Jayde George, Virtual Care Medical Director for Health First, Photography by Jason Hook

Turns out, Virtual Visits have been great for many others, too.

“Who would have thought, back in March, when we were doing about 20 a week, that we would end up doing 500 to 600 a day?” said Dr. Jayde George, Health First’s Virtual Care Medical Director.

Once COVID-19 stormed onto the scene, the group’s 300-plus providers were trained and became well-versed in delivering compassionate, high-quality virtual care. During the height of COVID-19, between 1,000 and 1,500 Virtual Visits were conducted per day.

Celebrating Success and Health

In mid-September, Health First conducted its 100,000th Virtual Visit.

“Finally hitting that mark was something for us to celebrate as a team,” Dr. George said of providing the community easy access to healthcare. “As we continue to do more and learn more, we eliminate the different roadblocks for patient and provider.”

Having healthcare accessible via a smartphone or computer has changed things across the board for patients who can get what they need from wherever they are: from chronic or preventive care to patient evaluations to prescription refills to lab results to mental health evaluations and more. Virtual Visits are offered seven days a week, with extended hours in the mornings and evenings.

At the height of COVID-19, Health First was conducting up to 1,500 Virtual Visits per day.

Adapting to Change

Providers are encouraged to think outside the box when it comes to virtual exams, emboldening the patient to take on a more proactive role with their health. For example, doctors can walk a patient with stomach pain through where to press on their abdomen to help the provider locate where their pain is, Dr. George explained.

Or if a patient has a rash or skin lesion they are concerned about, they can take a high-quality image with their smartphone and upload it to the patient portal for their physician to review. The Virtual Visit, which is hosted on a secure platform to ensure patient-doctor confidentiality, can also serve as a gateway to determining if further in-person care is needed.

Dr. George noted a case recently where a patient was suffering from lower extremity swelling. His wife was also on the Virtual Visit. “She was able to move the laptop around,” Dr. George recalled about being able to see the severity of the problem. Being able to see the extent of the swelling…“totally changed the visit. We were able to see he needed to go to the ER.”

Specialty Practices

And specialty practices are not beyond the scope of Virtual Visits: from bariatrics to pulmonology, providers are embracing this technology, turning to it often – and doing it well. Statistically, other healthcare systems similar in size to Brevard’s community healthcare systems’ specialists see between 7% and 9% of their patients virtually, said Dr. George. About 25% of Health First’s specialist visits are virtual.

Dr. Prakash Reddy, a Health First Medical Group provider who specializes in sleep medicine and pulmonary disease, has seen a 47% increase in Virtual Visits since March.

“As a provider, I am so happy to be able to give this choice to my patients, some of whom have been established with me for a very long time,” he said. “I would love to see all my patients in person, but for some, virtual visits just make more sense.”

This option is beneficial in two ways: first, it helps allay patients’ safety concerns and second, it squares nicely with busy schedules, cutting down driving and wait times. And it can be squeezed in more easily for those at work, so putting off an appointment is less likely.

“Also, Virtual Visits give access to care-givers who may reside in a different residence or workplace to participate in the provider visit, which otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” Dr. Reddy said. “Virtual Visits also increase access to specialists, who otherwise may have been non-accessible due to commuting distance.”

Dr. Prakash Reddy

Virtual Visits = Perfect Screening Tool

Dr. Xiaosong Song, a gastroenterologist with Health First Medical Group, said despite what some might think, Virtual Visits are perfect for many of his older patients, who aren’t always available to come into the office due to transportation needs.

Dr. Xiaosong Song

It’s the perfect screening tool “to be able to talk to them, to see what their condition is and to make a decision on how to help them in a timely manner,” he said. For those seeking answers about reflux, nausea, vomiting and abnormal liver function tests, this virtual discussion is an important first step that can be quickly addressed before deciding how to proceed. It’s also a quick way to talk through what patients need to know before undergoing a colonoscopy.

“We talk about why we’re doing the test, and the ability to prevent colon cancer,” he said.

“It doesn’t affect the quality of care. They like it,” Dr. Song said, adding how much his patients gravitate toward it. People tell him, “This is so much easier. I can be in my pajamas, talk to my doctor.”

Virtual Visits can be an especially vital tool as we enter flu season and the holidays approach. Most cold and flu symptoms can be identified and treated during a Virtual Visit. This protects both the patients who must come into the office, as well as associates who work there.

Quick & Easy

And for those who usually say they’ve got too much going on during the season? With the ability to step outside for a visit via smartphone for 15 minutes, there􏰄s really no excuse to shuffle your health to the back of your priority list.

“Just the nature of the holiday, people get busy,” said Dr. George. “They are doing things they don’t normally do. Medical care gets set aside. With Virtual Visits, you’ll see more providers who are able to see patients closer to the holidays. They might take time to step out of the room for 15 minutes and virtually continue that care.”

YOUR HEALTH, YOUR WAY

Want to learn more about how Virtual Visits can benefit you and your family?

Check out our recent Webex online event, where Dr. Timothy Laird, Interim Chief Medical Officer with Health First Medical Group, and Dr. Jayde George, Health First’s Virtual Care Medical Director, discuss Virtual Visits, COVID-19 and flu season.

You can watch the video at facebook.com/HealthFirst-Florida

TO SCHEDULE A VIRTUAL VISIT APPOINTMENT with a Health First provider, call 321.434.3131. To learn more about Health First, visit online at hf.org

Sara Paulson
Public Relations Supervisor at

Sara is the Public Relations Supervisor for Health First, Brevard’s community healthcare system. She came to Health First with 20 years’ experience as a newspaper journalist, both in reporting, columnist and editing roles at FLORIDA TODAY and for a newspaper group in Chicago. Sara is a member of the Space Coast chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association and lives in Rockledge with her teenage daughters, dog and cat with a questionable disposition.