Riverside University Health System expands access to doctors through the telephone

RIVERSIDE COUNTY – Jonathan Perkins was surprised the first time his primary care doctor at Riverside University Health System called him on the phone to talk about issues they’d discussed at one of Perkins’ earlier clinic appointments.

“I’d never had a doctor call me in my entire life – and I’m 55,” Perkins, a patient at the RUHS Community Health Center in Rubidoux, said. “It saves so much time to get a call from a doctor you’ve dealt with and not some unknown person or a robot.”

The California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems and the California Health Care Safety Net Institute have named Riverside University Health System as the 2017 Quality Leader in Ambulatory Care Redesign. The award recognizes RUHS’s pioneering work in developing telephone visits, which adhere to specific protocols to ensure they are meaningful and effective.

“RUHS is improving right-place, right-time care for patients by making it easier for patients to access care and for patients and providers to communicate,” Giovanna Giuliani, executive director of the California Health Care Safety Net Institute, which works closely with California’s 21 public health care systems on a variety of performance improvement efforts, said. Together these systems serve 2.85 million people annually and make up the core of California’s health care safety net.

Primary care doctors up and down the state are now putting RUHS’ telephone visit program to work to help them keep pace with a growing demand for services, Giuliani said.

RUHS launched its telephone pilot at just one Riverside-based Community Health Center in 2013, with just a handful of providers who were overwhelmed by patients that had become newly insured through the Affordable Care Act, Dr. Shunling Tsang, vice chair of the Department of Family Medicine at RUHS, said.

“We are one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. We recognized we had to come up with sustainable solutions to meet the needs of Riverside County’s 2.3 million residents,” Tsang said.

Today, more than 50 physicians at 12 RUHS primary care clinics across Riverside County are using telephone visits to help patients stay healthier and meet the demand for services. With fewer than 35 health care providers for every 100,000 residents, the telephone visit program is also helping to keep patients out of local emergency departments, Dr. Geoffrey Leung, ambulatory medical director at RUHS, said.

Expanding access to clinic services means there are cost efficiencies but – even more importantly – that patients are connecting to their providers, Leung said.

“Many of our patients have long faced barriers to access, including lack of transportation, child care obligations and difficulty taking time off work,” Leung said. “We brainstormed on how we could continue to provide timely high quality, patient-centered care. As a result, patient and physician satisfaction have improved.”

For Perkins, the patient who was surprised the first time his doctor called him, the telephone visits have helped ease the stress of getting to the clinic for routine appointments and medication management.

“I love it, and I can’t stop talking about it,” Perkins said. “I’m telling everybody.”

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