In 2020, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital (ETCH) and rural counties surrounding Knox County faced interrelated concerns. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued and fear remained high, ETCH saw use of its services plummet steeply, as patients, particularly from rural areas, declined to come in for healthcare appointments and even emergency treatment.
As this situation unfolded, Tammy Van Dyk, ETCH’s director of quality and patient safety, entered the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business 11-month Executive MBA – Healthcare Leadership program. She elected to use her program-long organizational action project (required of all program participants) to initiate a pilot telehealth program for ETCH, serving the Oneida school district. The project succeeded so well that a second school system – Grainger County – joined before the pilot was completed. With seven others now participating, the hospital’s telehealth program has more than tripled in size less than a year after the pilot wrapped. More schools are asking to join.
“It was a very successful project,” Van Dyk says. “Not just for my MBA – it was something that benefited the community and my hospital, too. I feel like it was a win for everyone involved.”
A Good Problem
Van Dyk wanted to find a way for ETCH to provide more services, during the pandemic and after, to underserved populations surrounding Knox County and decrease preventable emergency room visits and hospitalizations, but she was unsure what the response from rural communities would be.
“You just never know if people will trust a telehealth visit versus an in-person visit,” she says.
The hospital reached out to Scott and Grainger counties to gauge interest in the program. The communities’ response overwhelmed Van Dyk, and ETCH, too, at least temporarily.
“We did not anticipate the level of interest,” she says. “We were putting some feelers in the community. But the moment that these other school systems in rural areas heard about this, they were calling us. I remember thinking, ‘We do not have the infrastructure at this point,’ and I sat in a meeting with the VPs, saying, ‘Okay, it’s exploded.’”
Van Dyk deemed it a good problem to have. ETCH reacted promptly to the need and hired IT support, a telehealth manager and business analysts to provide a full team to work with the school systems. While metrics are being set up to measure how much these services are reducing unnecessary in-person healthcare visits, Van Dyk recalls an example that she says is typical of the way telehealth is being used.
A student in a rural school system went to the school nurse with a rash. The child lived with her grandparents, one of whom was at work and the other was unable to drive. Through ETCH’s telehealth services, the school nurse was able to determine the rash was not infectious and call in a prescription to a pharmacy.
“They immediately got the treatment they needed,” Van Dyk says. “That family was so happy when they realized that it was not infectious, so the child didn’t have to leave school, and the grandparent didn’t have to leave work.”
Van Dyk says the hospital has added lab services to the telehealth service to test for influenza, strep and COVID-19. It also is looking for resources that will enable it to expand the program to serve more areas.
Refining the Business Side
When Van Dyk saw that earning her MBA required completing a large project that ran the entire length of the program, she was apprehensive. Her drive to complete a meaningful project overcame that apprehension.
“I wanted it to be something that I could really sink my teeth into, and the telehealth pilot was it,” she says. “It was like we started almost an entire business within the department by scratch. It was a lot of fun and great timing.”
Van Dyk also credits her advisor, Alex Zablah, head of the marketing department, Gerber/Taylor Professor of Marketing and Kinney Family Faculty Research Fellow, and the entire EMBA-HL program for guiding and assisting her with the project.
“Alex helped me refine the marketing of the pilot and look at what the customer wants,” she says. “He helped me see, not just the organizational focus, but how do you make this a project that’s meaningful for the consumer.”
Zablah calls the telehealth pilot for ETCH a step toward the future of medicine, where decentralized, technology-supported delivery models broaden access to healthcare. According to him, such an approach eliminates time and location barriers to healthcare access, which has the potential to not only save lives, but also minimize the costs of care, benefiting patients and healthcare organizations alike.
“I was incredibly excited when Tammy shared what she wanted to do for her OAP and impressed by the work she did to help bring this program online,” Zablah says. “This project is a fantastic example of how Haslam’s program benefits our region.”
Van Dyk agrees. “I am a nurse by background, and the program refined my clinical knowledge with the business application approach,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do the telehealth program, but without this healthcare leadership program, I don’t think I would have known how to identify the potential revenue growth, the population, the demographics – all of the business side.”
Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, email@example.com