Emergency Medicine International

Emergency Medicine International / 2020 / Article

Research Article | Open Access

Volume 2020 |Article ID 8875644 | https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/8875644

Amy D. Lu, Myla Junge, Jonathan Garber, Anna K. Abramson, Mary A. Whooley, Janeen E. Smith, "Feasibility of a Telemedicine Urgent Care Program to Address Patient Complaints on First Contact", Emergency Medicine International, vol. 2020, Article ID 8875644, 4 pages, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/8875644

Feasibility of a Telemedicine Urgent Care Program to Address Patient Complaints on First Contact

Academic Editor: Sabine Nabecker
Received14 Sep 2020
Revised16 Oct 2020
Accepted19 Oct 2020
Published29 Oct 2020


Many health systems employ nurse telephone advice services to facilitate remote triage of patients to appropriate level of care. However, the effectiveness of these programs to reduce ED and subsequent health care utilization remains to be demonstrated. We describe a novel virtual urgent care program implemented within a Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system that interfaces with a nurse telephone advice line and leverages telemedicine tools to rapidly address and resolve nonemergent conditions. During a 4-month pilot period, 104 unique patients received care through the program, and over 85% of patients achieved timely resolution for their urgent complaints on first contact with the health care system. Demonstrating feasibility for such a program has potential implications for the optimization of remote triage and urgent care services to improve health care utilization and outcomes.

1. Introduction

Over the last two decades, emergency departments (EDs) have experienced a dramatic increase in visits for nonemergent conditions [1, 2]. This has led to higher patient costs, increased wait times, and potential delays in care. Nurse telephone advice services have been implemented by many health systems to reduce the burden on EDs but typically rely on computerized triage algorithms that are overly cautious, resulting in referral of patients to the ED for conditions that could be managed in less resource-intensive settings. We describe a novel virtual urgent care program interfacing with a nurse telephone advice line implemented at a Veterans Affairs (VA) health system in Northern California.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Program Description

We describe the results of a quality improvement project involving a convenience sample of Veterans who telephoned a nurse advice line during business hours (Monday to Friday, 8 am to 4 pm) between June 1, 2019, and September 30, 2019, at San Francisco VA Health Care System. For instances where the computerized triage algorithm recommended in-person evaluation within 24 hours, telephone triage nurses would contact an urgent care provider (physician or nurse practitioner) to discuss whether the case could be addressed via an on-demand video or telephone visit. For appropriate nonemergency cases, the triage nurse offered the patient the opportunity to be evaluated immediately through a video or phone visit with an urgent care provider.

2.2. Measures and Analyses

We used electronic health records to obtain patient demographic information, patient care assessment needs (CAN) comorbidity score [3], chief complaint, telemedicine modality utilized, and original triage recommendation for time frame and location of care. The primary outcome of interest was the proportion of cases that achieved first contact resolution (FCR) [4] which we defined as appropriate diagnosis or treatment within 24 hours or redirection to a less urgent follow-up appointment outside of the 24-hour window. A secondary outcome of interest was the proportion of cases seen in a VA or community ED within 72 hours following initial triage.

Basic patient demographic and clinical characteristics were compared between cases that achieved FCR with those that did not. Student’s t-test was applied for continuous variables and the Fisher exact test for categorical variables. We constructed multivariable logistic regression to determine the association of video-based telemedicine visits on FCR and subsequent ED visit. Statistical significance was set at a two-sided α = 0.05, and analyses were performed using STATA (version 16.0, StataCorp, College Station, TX).

3. Results

During the 4-month period, urgent care clinicians were available on 50 unique weekdays. On those days, an average of 36 ± 8 patient calls per day were triaged by the computerized algorithm to the same day (within 24 hours) in-person evaluation. A total of 104 unique patients were offered and agreed to a virtual urgent care visit: 78 visits were conducted by video and 26 were conducted by telephone. All visits were conducted immediately after the nurse advice call. Ninety-two (88.5%) cases achieved FCR. Patient demographic and clinical characteristics were largely similar between those who achieved FCR and those who did not (Table 1). Visits conducted over video had a 7.6 (95% CI: 1.2–47.3, ) odds of FCR and 0.04 (95% CI: 0.003–0.5) odds of subsequent ED presentation than those conducted over telephone when adjusted for demographic and clinical characteristics. Though a large proportion of cases were initially recommended for the same day care at an outpatient clinic, 20% (21/104) of cases were successfully diverted away from the ED, and only 7.7% (8/104) of cases resulted in a subsequent ED visit. Common reasons for failure to achieve FCR were related to technical difficulties connecting with patient via video, insufficient assessment by telephone alone, and patient preference for in-person care (Table 2).

CharacteristicAchieved FCR (N = 92)Did not achieve FCR (N = 12) value

Age, mean (SD)58.7 (16.8)59.3 (14.8)0.92

Sex, %0.410
 Male78 (84.8)9 (75)
 Female14 (15.2)3 (25)

Race, %0.485
 White65 (70.7)10 (83.3)
 Non-Whitea14 (15.1)0
 Declined/unknown13 (14.2)2 (16.7)

Marital status, %1.00
 Married34 (37.0)4 (33.3)
 Not marriedb58 (63.0)8 (66.7)

Rurality, %0.220
 Urban51 (55.4)4 (33.3)
 Rural41 (44.6)8 (66.7)

CAN score, mean (SD)70.5 (23.3)76.2 (22.2)0.425

Type of CC, %0.149
 Musculoskeletal31 (33.7)6 (50.0)
 Dermatologic13 (14.1)2 (16.7)
 Gastrointestinal12 (13.0)4 (33.3)
 ENT/respiratory11 (12.0)0 (0)
 Genitourinary9 (9.8)0 (0)
 Otherc16 (17.4)0 (0)

Initial triage recommended care within 24 hours, %76 (82.6)9 (75)0.456

Initial triage recommended follow-up location, %0.756
 Emergency department21 (22.8)3 (25.0)
 Clinic66 (71.7)8 (66.7)
 Otherd5 (5.4)1 (8.3)

Visit type, %0.001
 Video74 (80.4)4 (33.3)
 Telephone18 (19.6)8 (66.7)

Abbreviations: SD, standard deviation; CAN, care assessment needs; CC, chief complaint; ENT, ear, nose, and throat. aNon-White category includes Black, American Indian/American Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. bNot married category includes never married, divorced, separated, and widowed. cOther category included neurologic, cardiovascular, ophthalmologic, and constitutional complaints. dOther category includes home or missing information.

CaseChief complaintReason for FCR failureTelemedicine modality usedCase outcome

1Calf painPersistent pain and no clinic appointment availableTelephoneSeen at VA ED; diagnosed with plantaris muscle strain; and discharged home
2Athlete’s footPatient hung up and was not able to be reached within 24 hoursTelephonePatient reached >24 hours later and advised
3Body painPatient requested face-to-face clinic appointmentVideoPatient seen in primary care clinic within 72 hours
4Toe painInability to evaluate toe due to patient-side technical difficulties setting up video visitTelephonePlanned for podiatry appointment, but none available; so, ultimately seen in VA ED
5Finger painDiagnosed with early paronychia which progressed to need for drainageVideoSeen in community ED for incision and drainage and discharged home
6Toenail problemUnable to arrange expedient follow-up with primary care or podiatry within 72 hoursVideoPrescribed oral antibiotics for likely infected toe wound and seen by primary care nurse within 1 week
7ConstipationNot assigned to primary care team and thus recommended to present to ED for expedited workupTelephoneSeen in VA ED, treated for constipation with laxatives, and referred for colonoscopy for new diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia
8Abdominal crampsNot assigned to primary care team and no new patient appointment available within 72 hoursVideoSeen in community ED and diagnosed with functional abdominal pain
9Blood in stoolUnable to be connected by phone with patientTelephoneSeen in primary care clinic and triaged to self-care by nurse
10Leg painPatient presented to the ED before video visit was able to be arrangedN/ASeen in VA ED; diagnosed with superficial peroneal nerve compression; and discharged home
11Abdominal pain and diarrheaDifficulty with clinical assessment over phoneTelephoneSeen in community ED
12Toe painUnable to evaluate toe by video and high risk for diabetic foot infectionTelephoneReferred to community ED where he was admitted for diabetic foot infection

Abbreviations: FCR, first contact resolution; VA, veterans affairs; ED, emergency department; N/A, not available.

4. Discussion

Adoption of virtual urgent care has risen dramatically over the last decade, but few such programs have been linked with a nurse telephone advice line. Our pilot program demonstrated the feasibility of a seamless transfer of patients from an existing nurse-led telephone triage line to an immediate virtual evaluation by an urgent care provider. In over 85% of cases, the first contact resolution was achieved immediately. Patients in our study were on average older, more rural, and more likely to be male than those in previous studies of direct-to-consumer telemedicine platforms [5, 6], suggesting a relatively high acceptability of video visits in a population previously thought to be limited by the digital divide.

Our study was limited by a modest sample size given the availability of urgent care providers on select days during the pilot period as well as generalizability of the VA population and integrated health system to the private sector. However, the success of such a program to resolve patient concerns immediately via telemedicine has implications for change across various health care systems. In addition to saving time, travel, money, and ED clinic resources, virtual urgent care offers the opportunity to care for potentially contagious patients in isolation and to protect patients with noninfectious conditions from exposure to virulent infections.

Data Availability

The data used to support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


Dr. Lu was supported by the VA Quality Scholars Program funded through the VA Office of Academic Affiliations (grant no. AF-3Q-09-2019-C).


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Copyright © 2020 Amy D. Lu et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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