Your regular doctor and specialists can now care for you at home through ‘Virtual Visit’

Existing patients can use online scheduling to set up Virtual Visits with their primary care providers. Log on to My Health Connection and stay connected with your medical team as we all endure the COVID-19 pandemic.
March 31, 2020
virtual visit now available for primary care and specialists
Patients can now see their regular doctors and many specialists through Virtual Visits. Photo: Getty Images.

More than 700 UCHealth clinics are now offering Virtual Visits to allow patients to keep seeing their regular primary care and specialty providers while staying safe at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 100 primary care and specialty clinics have been offering virtual care for about a year and UCHealth’s Virtual Urgent Care, which offers 24/7 care to anyone in Colorado, has grown in popularity during the pandemic.

What is a Virtual Visit?

Providers see a patient through a secure video and audio chat.

How do Virtual Visit work?

Patients with access to a smart phone, tablet or a computer with a camera and a microphone can do a Virtual Visit. If patients don’t have good internet access or a smart phone, they can do a phone visit instead.

How do I make an appointment with my primary care provider?

For a Virtual Visit with a primary care provider, if you are an existing patient, you can use online scheduling to make an appointment. Just log on to your My Health Connection account. Then look in the upper right corner and find the button that says Schedule Virtual Visit. If you are a new patient, please call the primary care clinic where you wish to be seen and staff members will help you set up your first visit with a provider. Click here to find locations near you.

What should I do if I think I am having symptoms of COVID-19?

You may set up a Virtual Visit with your primary care provider and your medical team will help you determine if you can heal at home and need any prescriptions or if you need to go to a hospital. Please consult with your team for help. If you need medical care after hours, please use the Virtual Urgent Care. You can make that appointment online.

Can I use online scheduling to set up a Virtual Visit with my specialist?

No. Please call your specialty clinic directly. Click here to find locations and providers near you. If you need a Virtual Visit with your primary care provider or a Virtual Urgent Care appointment, you can schedule both of those visits online. Log in to My Health Connection to get started.

Who can do a Virtual Visit?

Patients in Colorado can do Virtual Visits. Please call the clinic where you usually receive care and nurses will schedule a Virtual Visit if it’s appropriate for your needs.

I’m a new patient. Can I do a Virtual Visit?

Yes. New patients are welcome. Click here to find locations and providers near you. New patients seeking care from specialists may need a referral. Please check with your primary care provider to get a referral.

Can patients outside of Colorado receive care through Virtual Visits?

Yes, some UCHealth providers are licensed to see patients in neighboring states, like Wyoming. Rules are changing every day. If you’re interested in a Virtual Visit and you live outside of Colorado, it’s best to call the clinic where you normally receive care or wish to see a provider and staff members can help you determine if your provider can see you through a Virtual Visit.

What’s the difference between a Virtual Urgent Care appointment and a Virtual Visit?

If you want to see your regular primary care provider or a specialist, you’ll want to schedule a Virtual Visit. These visits are more personalized because you will see a provider who already knows you.

If you need help for an urgent issue after hours, then a Virtual Urgent Care appointment is ideal. You will see providers who are supervised by specialists in emergency medicine.

If you think you have symptoms of COVID-19, please stay at home and call your primary care provider. If you are ill, but you do not have to be hospitalized, your provider will probably recommend that you isolate yourself and recover at home. If you need additional care, your provider will either have you do a Virtual Urgent Care visit or will direct you to go to the nearest hospital.

How soon can I get an appointment?

If you wish to see your regular provider, please call your clinic and you’ll get the next available appointment. You might be able to see another provider even faster. In some cases, same-day appointments for primary and specialty care are available.

What is the cost for a Virtual Visit?

A Virtual Visit with your primary care provider or a specialist will cost the same as a face-to-face visit. Typically, patients pay the regular co-pay. In addition to people with private health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid recipients can also do Virtual Visits.

I’m not very tech savvy. Will I be able to do a Virtual Visit?

Yes. The visits are not difficult at all. Staff members will walk you through how to do the visits. And if your doctor needs to see something on your body, like a surgical scar that is healing, a rash or a close-up of your face if you think you have pink eye, your provider can guide you on how to hold your phone or how to move closer to your camera on your computer.

What types of appointments work well for a Virtual Visit?

Surgeons can do pre- and post-operative visits with patients. Specialist can follow existing patients for existing conditions or see a new patient dependent on the referral and condition being treated.  People who have chronic illnesses like diabetes can check in with their providers. And patients with sore throats, urinary tract infections or other minor conditions can get help through their primary care providers. You can also see your primary care provider virtually if you need refills on most medications. Providers will not prescribe pain medications via a Virtual Visit.

What types of health issues don’t work well for a Virtual Visit?

If you have any type of emergency, please call 911. If you have a medical issue that you think requires an in-person visit, please call the clinic where you would normally receive care and staff members will help you.

I made an appointment for a Virtual Visit, but I need to cancel or reschedule it. How do I do that?

Patients can cancel Virtual Visits through their My Health Connection accounts. In order to reschedule a Virtual Visit with a primary care or specialty clinic, please call the clinic.

What if I have an emergency procedure and I have to go in for care. How will I know I will be safe?

Anyone who comes to a UCHealth hospital or clinic with symptoms of COVID-19, like a fever, cough and shortness of breath, will be triaged immediately and seen in a separate area from patients who do not have infectious illnesses. In all cases, clinics are being very cautious about practicing physical distancing.  Providers will keep you safe. Do not hesitate to get in-person care if you must come in to a medical facility during the pandemic. If you are uncertain whether you need to get care right away, please call your provider’s office.

Which is faster: emailing my doctor or calling for a Virtual Visit?

Dr. Markley advises patients to call and arrange a Virtual Visit. She said there could be a lag time before providers can respond to emails.  “Through Virtual Visits, we can get people in quickly.”

Now patients can arrange visits with providers at the Virtual Urgent Care for immediate needs and they can also schedule in advance to do a Virtual Visit with their regular doctor.

As the coronavirus outbreak has worsened, UCHealth technology experts raced to provide patients access to as many medical providers as possible, adding the virtual option to hundreds of additional clinics in only a few weeks.

Now, with Coloradans under a statewide “stay-at-home” order, many people can see their regular primary care provider or specialist virtually.

“This pandemic has shined a light on what we can do virtually,” said Kathy Deanda, Senior Director for Virtual Health for UCHealth. “Both patients and providers are appreciative of this option and realizing that many conditions can be treated via Virtual Visits.”

Many patients don’t want to risk getting exposed to the coronavirus by going out for medical appointments and Deanda has a reassuring message for them.

“You can do a visit from home,” Deanda said. “Initially, it was patients in our high-risk populations who wanted to use Virtual Visits. Now we’re seeing everyone saying they don’t want to go out.”

Dr. Katie Markley said 100% of primary care clinics are now using virtual visits. Markley sees patients virtually and in person at UCHealth Primary Care – Hilltop in Parker and is also Senior Medical Director UCHealth Ambulatory Services.

The Virtual Visits are also available for many specialists and providers at other clinics as well, including behavioral health experts, nutritionists and occupational, speech or physical therapists.

Markley, Deanda and a team of medical and technology experts had been working to expand virtual health offerings for well over a year. Then, COVID-19 hit and Markley said both patients and providers quickly “jumped on the bandwagon.”

“We went from discussions about all the benefits to providers who weren’t up yet knocking down the doors,” Markley said. “It’s been an amazing, crazy, exciting, stressful catalyst for us to get up and running.”

As with an in-person visit, health insurance typically covers a Virtual Visit, which is secure and private.  And, in advance of doing a visit virtually, schedulers or clinic staff members will consult with patients to determine if an online visit is appropriate for their medical needs.

The appointments work well for people with chronic conditions like diabetes. These patients need regular care more frequently than other patients and providers can check up on how their blood sugars are doing.

Markley said there are many patients who fare poorly during stressful times. And we are all experiencing some of the greatest stresses of our lives. She said it’s critical for people with chronic health challenges to keep in touch with their medical providers.

“We are still open. Let’s take care of you. Please don’t be afraid to get the care you need,” Markley said.

“COVID-19 is consuming our lives now, but we want to make sure that your issues are being addressed. Is your blood pressure under control? Is your diabetes under control? Your chronic conditions are exacerbated because of stress and not sleeping well. We can care for you and help you stay on track,” Markley said.

In addition to chronic issues, Virtual Visits work well for patients who have a problem like a rash, a wound or an infection, whether it’s a urinary tract infection, a sinus infection or pink eye.

“There’s a lot we can do,” Markley said. “As a physician, I can walk the patient through the visit so we both can get a lot of information.”

Markley said providers always need to be good listeners, but through virtual care, she’s become even more attuned to her patients.

“I have to really listen to what they are saying so I can learn about their needs and provide the care they need,” she said.

Markley can direct the patient to move the camera if she needs to see something better, like a wound, a rash or an eye infected with pink eye. And, she can use the patient’s hands as an extension of her own.

“I can say, ‘You’ve got a wound on your leg. Shine the camera on your leg. Move it to the right or the left. Is it warm there?’”

“I can say, ‘Press down. Does it hurt? Does it itch? Is it wet or hard in that area?’ I can really guide them to what I’m looking for and they can report back to me,’” Markley said.

The same type of “patient-guided exam” works well for belly pain or sinus pressure.

Specialists are also using the visits to check on their patients. Surgeons can do pre-op exams or check in with patients after a procedure to see if they’re healing well. Neurologists use Virtual Visits to keep in touch with patients who have conditions like epilepsy.

Dr. Christine Baca specializes in caring for patients who have epilepsy and has loved doing Virtual Visits for more than a year since the appointments make it easier for her patients to access care.

“Many of my patients who have severe disease can’t drive. Or they might live far away. Virtual Visits work well whether you live in Denver or Durango. They help improve access for patients near and far,” said Baca, who is also an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

With some brain disorders, stress can exacerbate symptoms. So, Baca said it’s especially important for her patients to keep seeing their doctors during these difficult times.

“Stress can be a trigger for a lot of our patients,” Baca said.

Virtual Visits can ensure that patients are doing well on their medications and don’t run out. Knowing they have a doctor keeping an eye on them can reduce seizures. Attentive care and fewer seizures, in turn, reduce the likelihood that a patient will need to be hospitalized when Intensive Care Units around Colorado and the U.S. are full of extremely sick and contagious patients suffering from COVID-19.

“I don’t want anybody running out of medication now. I don’t want patients to end up in the ER,” Baca said.

That’s why, in addition to seeing established patients, Baca and her colleagues now are also seeing new patients.

Some new and returning patients need help learning how to do Virtual Visits, while others adapt easily. Among Baca’s patients are young adults with special needs whose parents still care for them. One parent of an adult with special needs said a recent Virtual Visit was much easier than an in-person appointment because trips to the clinic posed so many challenges for the family. Through the Virtual Visit, Baca could go over medications and treatment plans with the parents, while also observing the young adult in the low-stress comfort of home.

As patients have adjusted, so too, have Baca’s colleagues.

Since she was one of the first in her department to embrace Virtual Visits, she has coached colleagues on how best to do the secure video visits. The pandemic has helped everyone learn quickly how to adapt.

“We all want to take care of our patients,” she said.

The gratitude and flexibility from patients has been most rewarding.

“They are really appreciative that they can be seen at this time. We’re all in uncharted territory. We’re learning how to do this together,” Baca said.

If any of her patients need more urgent diagnostic testing – for instance for an MRI to check on a brain tumor – Baca can work with radiology colleagues and the patient to ensure expeditious in-person testing. For less-urgent tests, she might encourage the patient to wait until it’s safer to come in.

For all Virtual Visits, if patients need face-to-face appointments, doctors will help them decide when and where to safely get care.

“If there’s any uncertainty, we can always bring the patient in for care,” Markley said.

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Patients are never charged for two visits in the same day. If they need care beyond a Virtual Visit at an urgent care or ER later the same day, they won’t be charged for the Virtual Visit.

Deanda says the pandemic has caused dramatic changes in the way providers are caring for patients.

“We never imagined the magnitude of what we could do this quickly,” Deanda said. “This shift is huge.”

Once patients get the chance to experience Virtual Visits, many love them. And experts on virtual care expect that long after the pandemic has eased, patients will want to continue receiving care when and where it’s convenient for them.

“Patients will keep pushing for this,” Deanda said. “If nothing else, this crisis has taught us how to pull together quickly and make things happen. While no one could foresee such an unprecedented and devastating situation in our communities, because of the pandemic, we are going to see more virtual health in the future. It’s huge and both patients and providers are grateful to have this option as another means of obtaining healthcare.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.