Garrett Davis wasn’t sure about foregoing the urgent-care clinic in his neighborhood for a virtual doctor visit when he started feeling sick last week.
“I’ve never tried telemedicine before, mostly because it sounded kooky,” the 22-year-old from Kent said.
After receiving an email from MultiCare offering a free virtual-doctor consultation, he thought he would give it a try, especially with hospitals and urgent-care clinics dealing with a crush of patients amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The thought of a video chat with a doctor or nurse still felt strange to Davis, so he opted to fill out an online survey about his flu-like symptoms. A half-hour after completing the survey he heard from a doctor and was prescribed Tamiflu.
Davis is part of a growing number of people who are using technology to stay away from doctor’s offices and emergency rooms in an effort to avoid SARS-CoV-2, which is the name of the novel coronavirus that emerged in China late last year, has ripped through Western Washington and is poised to strain the region’s medical facilities.
Researchers predicted this week that without drastic social-distancing measures, King and Snohomish counties could see about 400 deaths and 25,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, by April 7.
Health care systems are preparing to be so overloaded from the COVID-19 response that the state Department of Health (DOH) is seeking volunteer health practitioners to help out.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has urged people seeking medical advice to avoid going to emergency rooms or their doctors for routine or minor issues so as not to overwhelm the health care system.
People are taking heed, and the pandemic is an opportunity for health care providers to utilize and push telemedicine in ways not possible before the outbreak.
Since confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the region have been climbing and people began dying late last month, UW Medicine has seen a tenfold increase from the 20,000 visits the digital service, which encompasses 20 medical specialties, saw last year, said Dr. John Scott, UW Medicine’s director for digital health.
“We are on the steep part of the curve here,” he said.
The increase of telemedicine use is important because UW Medicine’s largest hospital, Harborview Medical Center, was operating at 95% capacity last year.
The online crush of visits is also happening with patients at Kaiser Permanente Washington.
Web services for patients have been one of the health care provider’s focuses during the past several years, said Dr. Paul Minardi, president and executive medical director of the Washington Permanente Medical Group.
Kaiser patients can choose from a variety of options such as a video chat with a doctor to an e-visit, which is a self-guided assessment, much like Davis did for his MultiCare survey. About 1,200 people a day are using Kaiser’s web services.
Before SARS-CoV-2, about 11% of all visits with a Kaiser Permanente Washington doctor were handled digitally. During the past week that number has exploded to 40%, Minardi said.
Through digital channels, doctors have been able to triage the people they suspect have COVID-19 and those with less critical ailments, which, in turn, helps minimize the spread of the virus and protects people working in clinics and hospitals, Minardi said.
“We should err on the side of keeping people safe,” he said.
The digital services provided by UW Medicine keep front-line health care professionals safe and ensure emergency rooms and clinics are cleared for the sickest of patients, Scott said.
The virtual clinic allows a clinician to do triage, the work of sorting patients and their needs, after a video chat. It’s staffed 24 hours a day and can also be accessed through an app or via a phone call.
“In the first stage of any epidemic like this, triage is the most important aspect of it,” Scott said.
Davis found the virtual doctor visit so efficient and effective he would do it again, even if he had to pay.
“I’m more likely to do the online thing because it worked,” he said.
Seattle Times staff writers Evan Bush and Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.