Ten patients smiled and waved out on the computer monitor, as Jacob Mirsky, MD, greeted each one, asked them to introduce themselves, and inquired as to how each was doing with their stress reduction tactics.
The attendees of the online session had been patients at in-person group visits at the Massachusetts General Hospital Revere HealthCare Center. But those in-person group sessions, known as shared medical appointments (SMAs), were shut down when COVID-19 arrived.
“Our group patients have been missing the sessions,” said Dr. Mirsky, a general internist who codirects the center’s group visit program. The online sessions, called virtual SMAs (V-SMAs), work well with COVID-19 social distancing.
In the group sessions, Dr. Mirsky reads a standardized message that addresses privacy concerns during the session. For the next 60-90 minutes, “we ask them to talk about what has gone well for them and what they are struggling with,” he said. “Then I answer their questions using materials in a PowerPoint to address key points, such as reducing salt for high blood pressure or interpreting blood sugar levels for diabetes.
“I try to end group sessions with one area of focus,” Dr. Mirsky said. “In the stress reduction group, this could be meditation. In the diabetes group, it could be a discussion on weight loss.” Then the program’s health coach goes over some key concepts on behavior change and invites participants to contact her after the session.
“The nice thing is that these virtual sessions are fully reimbursable by all of our insurers in Massachusetts,” Dr. Mirsky said. Through evaluation and management (E/M) codes, each patient in a group visit is paid the same as a patient in an individual visit with the same level of complexity.
Dr. Mirsky writes a note in the chart about each patient who was in the group session. “This includes information about the specific patient, such as the history and physical, and information about the group meeting,” he said. In the next few months, the center plans to put its other group sessions online – on blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and insomnia.
Attracting doctors who hadn’t done groups before
said Marianne Sumego, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s SMA program, which began 21 years ago.
In this era of COVID-19, group visits have either switched to V-SMAs or halted. However, the COVID-19 crisis has given group visits a second wind. Some doctors who never used SMAs before are now trying out this new mode of patient engagement,
Many of the 100 doctors using SMAs at the Cleveland Clinic have switched over to V-SMAs for now, and the new mode is also attracting colleagues who are new to SMAs, she said.
“When doctors started using telemedicine, virtual group visits started making sense to them,” Dr. Sumego said. “This is a time of a great deal of experimentation in practice design.”
Indeed, V-SMAs have eliminated some problems that had discouraged doctors from trying SMAs, said Amy Wheeler, MD, a general internist who founded the Revere SMA program and codirects it with Dr. Mirsky.
V-SMAs eliminate the need for a large space to hold sessions and reduce the number of staff needed to run sessions, Dr. Wheeler said. “Virtual group visits can actually be easier to use than in-person group visits.”
Dr. Sumego believes small practices in particular will take up V-SMAs because they are easier to run than regular SMAs. “Necessity drives change,” she said. “Across the country everyone is looking at the virtual group model.”