Here at Aledade, we talk a lot about getting out beyond the four walls of the practice – because that’s how you get a window into the real challenges that a patient faces every day. They might be challenges we couldn’t have seen if we kept doing business the same old way. And sometimes, if we fix those, everything else can fall into place.

One of our partner practices proved this not too long ago. Dr. Syed Zaidi has been working in the town of Ripley, Tennessee for the past 20 years – providing care to the families around Ripley through his independent practice. And thanks to Aledade, he was able to care for them with some new tools.

In 2016, Dr. Zaidi started offering Chronic Care Management to some of his Medicare patients. This meant that a care management team would check up on his patients with more complex chronic conditions, making sure they had their medications and to try to get ahead of anything that could go wrong.

One patient had been in care management for a while, but Dr. Zaidi and his team weren’t seeing any changes. Neither he nor the patient felt like they were really making progress.

Then one day, the family opened up, and shared the real challenge they were living with every day. They were homeless. For several weeks, the entire family had been living out of their car – joined by a few animals they had adopted as pets. Their home had been infected with mold, making it uninhabitable, and they didn’t know where to turn.

That’s where the care management team and Dr. Zaidi’s whole practice jumped in. They helped the family find a safe place to live. Through community resources, they secured donations and raised money to provide the family everything from new mattresses to new clothes. And, since the family’s new home couldn’t take pets, Dr. Zaidi’s team even found good homes for every one of the animals. Today, the family’s healthier, and the patient’s chronic conditions are under much better control.

Chronic diseases are only going to get more challenging in the years to come. In 2012, the CDC estimated that one out of every two adults in the U.S. had at least one chronic condition. One in every four U.S. adults had two or more. And 86 percent of all of U.S. health care spending in 2010 was for people with at least one chronic medical condition. Chronic care management – by actually connecting patients with an active and engaged care management team – can tackle a daunting challenge for our health care system, and open up new possibilities in lowering costs.

But most of all, CCM helps our patients live better lives. Thanks to CCM through Aledade, we found out about this family’s situation. And thanks to the compassion and drive of Dr. Zaidi and his care management team, this family got back on their feet and back on the road to better health.

As the Care Manager at the Winston Clinic and a Nurse Practitioner by training, I’ve taken the lead in working with our high-risk patients, as well as those with uncontrolled chronic diseases.

When a patient is identified as “high risk”, whether that’s by Aledade or by a provider, we place the patient’s name on my desktop, and add it to our list of patients who should receive care management. Usually, these are patients who need support for a hospital discharge, or have had a new diagnosis. Sometimes, they’re patients who will need support over a longer time period. One of our new programs is to place patients with uncontrolled chronic disease onto care management before we even refer them out to a specialist.

I have multiple patients who say they benefit from care management, and their clinical numbers show the same thing. But there are two patients who stand out the most.

One was placed on care management for her diabetes. In the past three months, she’s made huge steps forward. She had been diagnosed as diabetic for more than a decade, she’s been on insulin and Metformin for some time and her HgBA1C level hit 15.3. Our clinic was just about to refer her to an endocrinologist, until I asked specifically if she could be referred to Care Management services instead.

On our first care management call, I started by just asking her why she thought her sugars were high. The patient told me that she didn’t know – she wasn’t eating any sweets or white bread. She had no idea that different fruits, vegetables and drinks were driving her sugars up. When I asked what her providers had taught her, she said she felt stupid for asking them questions, and they had assumed she already knew.

I also asked her why she wasn’t taking her insulin. It turns out she had been placed in the hospital once before for hypoglycemia because she had taken too high of a dose of insulin. She was worried about putting herself through that again.  Over the course of several phone calls and an office visit to train her how to manage her diabetes, the patient told me she feels much better about her ability to manage her diabetes.

Her last A1C reading was 11.5. That steady decrease is a win for the practice, and a win for our patient! But we’re not stopping there – we are still working together to lower these numbers this even more!

The other patient who stands out to me was diagnosed with prediabetes. She was due for an Annual Wellness Visit (AWV), so we brought her in. I gave her a health risk assessment, where she remarked that she felt unwell today. But she wasn’t very specific. Then I saw that her PHQ9 – a depression health questionnaire – was off the charts. I put the diabetes aside for a second, and started using some of my coaching skills to help her to open up.

She told me that she was suicidal on most days. Her mother had died three weeks before, and often she would lay in bed and cry all day. She had missed her previous day’s counseling appointment, and wasn’t scheduled to see her outpatient counselor for another several weeks.

I determined that she was not suicidal at that moment, and began to use some of our health coaching strategies. I asked her if she could picture herself happy. She said she could not. She said the only reason she hadn’t killed herself is because she didn’t want her girls to lose their grandmother and their mother in the same year.

Needless to say, we talked a lot. In the end, she decided that she could commit to one change. She would spend time each day trying to picture herself happy. And during the few times a week that she felt happy, she would write down what she was grateful for. As soon as the patient left, I called the counselor, and she called the patient for a phone visit immediately. She’s visited her counselor multiple times.

I have spoken with the patient every week over the course of several weeks. She felt that I wasn’t judging her during the first visit, that I actually cared about the “other stuff”, even though she was there to discuss her diabetes.

Just recently, I asked her how she was feeling.

She responded, “I think I can be!”

I said, “You lost me. You can be what?”

“One day,” she said, “I think I can be happy!”

She has had several bad days since then, and several good days. Through the ups and the downs, I think I’m getting as much from her as she’s getting from me. And I know I would have missed out on this experience if we were not making the effort to reach out to our patients.

I believe in the power of the AWV and care management calls, because I’ve seen it in these two patients, and many others. Here at Winston Clinic, we will continue to support our high-risk patients and patients with uncontrolled chronic diseases through care management and having open, honest conversations.

Trust and good relationships with patients are essential in providing high quality healthcare. A key factor in this equation is being available for patients when they have questions or concerns. This availability is especially important for patients dealing with chronic illnesses or other health issues. Opening an avenue for these patients to have access to care, even outside the clinic, can greatly enhance the trust they feel and the relationship they share with their provider.

Like many others, our clinic is in a state of evolution as we make the transition from a traditional fee-for-service model into a more comprehensive care setting for our patients. We decided last January to begin offering Chronic Care Management as a resource to reach some of our most at-risk patients. Right away it became obvious the success of the program was going to hinge on finding the right person as a liaison between patient and provider. It had to be someone the patients felt comfortable talking to and someone I could trust. It was a very difficult leap of faith, but I decided there was no better choice than Susan Williams, my nurse of 15 years. Susan already has good relationships with all of my patients, and they trust her. I promoted her to the position of Care Manager, and we began enrolling patients.

With Susan leading the way, our patients immediately embraced the program, and we have seen many of our most in-need patients begin to manage their health more effectively and efficiently. We have over 80 patients under management, and only two have discontinued the program.

We launched a new cell phone line so patients in the program could access Susan directly. She carries the phone during office hours so that patients no longer need to speak to the receptionist. They no longer worry about not getting a call back or if their message is lost in translation. If there is a problem, Susan comes to me directly, and we decide whether the patient needs to come to the office or if we can handle the problem remotely.

It became immediately evident, once these patients knew they could get an answer quickly, their tendency to run to the emergency room decreased. Susan began keeping a list of patients who were seen in the office on the same day they called and spoke to her. While this is a number that never shows up in the data, we have counted over 40 occasions since last June where the patient called asking if they should go to the emergency room, and instead they were seen in the office. Even if they actually do need hospitalization, I can admit them to our hospital directly from my office, avoiding the time, stress, and extra cost of a trip to the emergency room.

A specific example of the effectiveness of the program involves a patient who had an outpatient procedure to replace his pacemaker battery. The following day he spiked a high fever and called the number provided by the cardiologist. He was unsuccessful at reaching any of the clinical staff and was told he would get a call back, which never came. Instead of going to the local ER, he called Susan. She informed me of the problem, and I had her call the Cardiology practice. She was quickly able to get the physician on the phone and direct admission was arranged under the care of the patient’s cardiologist. With a simple call, an ER visit was avoided and care was provided quickly.

Aledade ACOs emphasize the special relationships small practices have with their patients, and their guidance helped us launch this beneficial care management program. Our patients value the personal relationship they have with Susan, and we have direct evidence the program has led to better health outcomes and lower hospital and ER utilization by our patients.