“I am generally quite modest – I don’t like to brag about my achievements too much. But in this case, I want to make an exception. I want to tell the world what we have done.”
For Ed de Myttenaere, CIO at Northwest Clinics hospital (Noordwest Ziekenhuisgroep) in the Netherlands, breaking with tradition is becoming increasingly normal. In responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, his team have implemented a virtual consultation solution that has the potential to redefine healthcare across Europe and beyond.
“People were scared when the crisis started,” recalls de Myttenaere. “Patients were scared to come to the hospital, and doctors desperately wanted to treat their patients. We needed to find a solution.”
Working with Dutch Microsoft partner ChipSoft, Northwest Clinics developed and implemented a secure, simple and intuitive solution to bridge the gap between doctors and their patients – all in a matter of weeks.
Built around Microsoft Teams and embedded into the hospital’s electronic medical record (EMR) system, not only is the solution one of the first of its kind in the world – it is also delivering fantastic results, despite the trying circumstances.
“I am extremely proud of what we have done,” says de Myttenaere.
Responding to an overnight transformation
Northwest Clinics is a hospital based in the north of the Netherlands. With over 5,000 staff and a potential 600,000 local drop-in patients, the hospital runs a huge operation – even before taking into consideration the many chronic patients that are referred from further afield.
So when the hospital was forced to transform its operations overnight during the COVID-19 outbreak, it required quick and decisive action from everyone at Northwest Clinics to keep that operation going.
“When the crisis started, it transformed the hospital,” recalls de Myttenaere. “We had to change the function of many of our wards to accommodate patients who required either testing or treatment for COVID-19. That meant increasing the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) capacity by something like 300% overnight. It was a huge pressure on Northwest Clinics,” he says.
“We closed the hospital for normal use. Of course, our emergency room was still open for severe health issues like haemorrhages or heart failure. But there were no longer consultations for patients who weren’t either suspected of having, or had been diagnosed with COVID-19.”
With normal in-person consultations stopped, the IT team at Northwest Clinics needed to move fast to ensure a continuity of care for its many patients. Suddenly, a solution that allowed for virtual consultations became an overnight necessity.
“The solution we implemented uses Microsoft Teams to allow patients and doctors to continue to meet in a secure and familiar digital environment,” he says.
Northwest Clinics is a hospital based in the north of the Netherlands.
Secure virtual consultations through the EMR
At the heart of every hospital’s operations is its EMR system. It is the key source of information for medical professionals, containing every patient’s results, diagnoses and medical history.
“The most important thing is that the new solution integrates with our EMR,” says de Myttenaere. “That makes everything very safe and secure because you don’t send a Teams meeting request link to the patient via email. It’s all done from our EMR and patient portal.”
The solution was developed by EMR solutions provider and Microsoft Gold partner, ChipSoft, which specialises in digital solutions for healthcare professionals. “We wanted to develop a product that was very intuitive and very simple, so anyone can use it,” says George van Dijk, Senior Developer at ChipSoft.
“That’s what we have done with the solution for Northwest Clinics. As a patient, when you make an appointment you don’t have to interact with Teams. You just make an appointment through the EMR portal, using the login details you already have. The system then communicates with Microsoft Teams to set up the video meeting.
“That makes the whole solution very simple, and very secure.”
An intuitive system for patients and doctors
“The system is very intuitive, so you don’t need any training to use it,” says de Myttenaere, comparing the online consultations to their in-person alternatives. “When patients have an appointment through the online portal, they then wait in a virtual waiting room, and when the doctor is ready, they admit the patient into a virtual doctor’s room.
“The doctor then sees the patient on the left of the screen and the patient’s records, medical history, results and everything else on the right. So they can read through all the notes and add more notes, all while maintaining eye-contact with the patient. That’s huge for the patient and the doctor.
“And feedback has been tremendous,” he adds. “All the patients we have spoken to say it is easy to use and that it makes a big difference to see the doctor face-to-face.”
The success of the solution has resulted in approximately 30% of the hospital’s normal patients being seen by doctors during the COVID-19 lockdown period. “We are hoping to increase that to 45% very soon,” he says. “Although there are limitations due to the 1.5-meter distancing measures currently in place.”
This is good for patients, but also for a private hospital like Northwest Clinics it is crucial from a business point of view. And it is a huge opportunity for the hospital going forward.
A solution for the ‘new normal’
“The future started twelve weeks ago,” says de Myttenaere, reflecting on the lasting impact of COVID-19. “And I believe that the way we are working now is the new normal.
“Medical staff will continue to use Teams with video consulting going forward. And as the number of medical staff using it increases, so the success of the solution will increase. It will be one of the defining communication solutions of healthcare in the future.”
It is the solution that de Myttenaere sees shaping the fundamental workings of hospitals in the future. “I believe more and more virtual hospitals will be built to provide services that currently patients physically visit the hospital for,” he says. “So we have to continue to develop the means and methods to treat patients remotely.”
It is a forward thinking and ambitious vision, but one that fits well with Northwest Clinics approach to healthcare. The solution they have developed is adding to the hospital’s already-stellar reputation, and is attracting the attention of other hospitals eager to emulate its pioneering EMR system.
“In the Netherlands, our hospital is already well-known for its innovative programs and modernized technology,” says de Myttenaere proudly. “But since we have launched this system, I get about four or five phone calls a week from colleagues at other hospitals who want to know how we did it.
“So I am extremely glad to be able to share the story of how we did it, so other hospitals can start offering their patients this type of service going forward.”
It is proof that, despite the challenging circumstance hospitals like Northwest Clinics face during this difficult time, there may be some outcomes that offer hope of a brighter, more efficient, digitally-driven future for both patients and doctors alike.