The University of Vermont Health Network has released a plan to confront the years-old problem of long waits for medical appointments, offering a mix of new and old initiatives.
Seven Days detailed the problem in a cover story last month, recounting how patients are waiting months, and in some cases more than a year, for certain specialty care at the state's largest hospital, the University of Vermont Medical Center. The state is now investigating the issue and says it hopes to publish a report by year's end.
The health network's plan says it will reduce these backlogs by addressing staffing shortages, increasing patient capacity and using technology to create a more efficient system.
A number of the items on the plan have been in the works for years. Many call on the health network to spend more money. And, according to health network CEO and president John Brumsted, none represents a “silver bullet.”
“There's not a time where we're going to flip the switch and access is going to be totally fixed," Brumsted said at a press conference on Tuesday. "All of these things will incrementally improve access to care, over the coming days, months in the next couple of years.”
Health network leaders have painted the problem as a national issue. They say people who put off medical care during the pandemic are now coming in sicker, requiring more complex care, while a shortage of health care workers has made it harder to attract new employees.
But while the pandemic has indeed worsened matters for the UVM Medical Center, wait times have long plagued the Burlington hospital. Several patients told Seven Days this summer that they had suffered from lengthy appointment delays even before the pandemic, while employees confirmed that backlogs have existed for years.
The network's plan cites steps to bolster staff recruitment and retention, from hiring a dozen more recruiters to offering more bonuses. It's also conducting a market analysis to ensure that compensation levels are competitive and is seeking a partnership with local developers to create more affordable housing.
At the same time, the network says it's seeking to make better use of the resources it already has. The quickest way to do that, officials said, is through technology.
The network launched a more than $150 million new health records system, Epic, two years ago. Now, it is working to install it across its six Vermont and New York State hospitals. All Vermont hospitals and clinics are expected to be on the system by next month, while all New York hospitals and clinics will run it by April 2022.
Epic will enable the network to implement features it says will help patients get faster specialty care. One such example is "eConsults," which allows primary care providers to virtually check in with specialty physicians instead of referring their patients for an appointment.
The health network also plans to expand its Patient Access Service Center, which scours schedules for last-minute openings in a small number specialities. The network recently added 19 new employees to the center and hopes to soon add more specialities to the program.
Brumsted said the network's plan was not spurred by the state investigation but is a "response to the environment that we're in right now nationally and locally, and the urgency comes from that."
"There's an escalation in need, and a constraint on our capacity to meet that need," Brumsted said. "So we are hyper-focused on anything we can do to increase capacity, and to meet the needs of our people."