Nation's 1st telehealth chair on changing culture

Sarah Rush, MD, serves as the chief medical information officer of Akron (Ohio) Children's Hospital, and in May 2020, she became what is believed to be the first endowed chair of telehealth in the nation. She spoke to Becker's about the creation of the role and what it has meant for the hospital.

The chair position, made possible by a $1 million donation from philanthropist Marci Matthews, was spurred by the telehealth boom brought on by the pandemic. In 2019, Akron Children's had just 275 telehealth appointments, but in 2020 had completed over 55,000 virtual visits. Also, in spite of the general national decline in telehealth usage, Akron completed around 45,000 telehealth visits in 2021.

Despite the hospital's previous efforts to integrate telehealth into behavioral and emergency department care, Dr. Rush said it was the pandemic that caused the change. 

"I think, conceptually, people had not been able to really wrap their brains around what telehealth could do," she said. "I think organically through the process of doing and seeing and both sides of it, the providers learning how to do it, the patient learning how to do it, it just sort of naturally happened. Now I think it's become really ingrained in a way that I don't think it would have had we not been put into that situation of having to do it."

The creation of the role freed up funding and allowed Dr. Rush to concentrate her efforts into developing telehealth programs. 

"Using these funds to help put devices into places where patients could get to has really been important and putting in that technology infrastructure to allow it to happen," she said. 

Importantly, the creation and subsequent authority of her position encouraged the hospital to embrace telehealth. 

"It was being an ambassador and champion, to help change the culture of how we think about it and how we use it and what are the areas where we can start to do better with it to improve quality of care and also value," she told Becker's. "I think this is my own personal opinion, is that this vertical hierarchy of medicine where the physician stays at the very top, needs to look different. I think we'll do better and provide a different kind of care that reaches the right people at the right time with what they actually need."

With Dr. Rush's leadership, the hospital was able to grow its primary care platform with the goal of reducing emergency department visits by connecting patients to their own pediatrician quickly. Its behavioral health team was also able to connect across the Ohio region, and Akron was also able to integrate nurses into schools in the region, connecting them to students virtually.

Looking forward, Dr. Rush is prioritizing health equity and access to care regarding telehealth. 

"I don't think there's ever going to be an absolute substitution for an in-person visit in all cases, but I think there's tons of opportunities that we're missing currently, where we can use technology to reach people and stay connected. I think that's really been the key to all this, making healthcare convenient because the more convenient it is, the more likely we are to seek it."

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