We sat down with Michele Behme, RN, CEO of Sonder Health to discuss all things digital health.
Updated: Feb 24
By: Alexis Wheeler
Executive nursing leadership with 20 years in behavioral health and decades of healthcare IT experience, Michele Behme, CEO of Sonder Health, weighs in on telemedicine and looking toward a post-pandemic landscape.
Read her thoughts below:
Alexis: Tell me a little bit about your background in healthcare.
Michele: I started my career as a RN, serving the acute behavioral health patient population as a staff nurse and working my way into senior leadership positions. I spent 20 years in the hospital, eventually becoming involved with IT on the system selection committee who, at the time, was looking for a new EHR (a.k.a. electronic health record). At that point in time, there were not any RNs in IT nor were there any EHR vendors that had behavior health applications, so my role quickly evolved into being an integral part of the project implementation team, which grew into a full-time focus. As a nurse, I had the opportunity to provide a clinical perspective to the IT department, always reminding them that the patient was at the core of all we did, and workflow decisions should be made by providers and caregivers and not necessarily from the IT team or the vendor.
Fast forward to today, the clinical role has greatly evolved and, as a part of the IT team, is accepted as an integral part of every project and/or consulting engagement. With the experience, I gained working as a clinical informaticist and project manager and I eventually left the bricks and mortar hospital began the journey into being an EHR implementation and advisory consultant. The inpatient EHR space was just evolving, so I had the opportunity to work on a national level, implementing large, academic health systems with their EHR implementations. I worked for both small and large management consulting firms and had the opportunity to fulfill many different roles within those organizations - from delivery, executive leadership, new service line and business development, as well as helping several startups along the way, all while bringing a clinical viewpoint to the companies and clients.
Alexis: Where do you see telemedicine going in 2021 and beyond?
Michele: There was a time, pre-COVID-19 when telemedicine and digital health technology was not in the spotlight like it is today. Those of us who have been in the healthcare IT field realize it has been around for decades, only just recently, it has gained acceptance by both providers and patients alike. The use of videoconferencing technology for health care intervention and support is an area of tremendous potential, especially in triaging patients, avoiding unnecessary ED visits, and keeping our caregivers safer. In general, the benefits of telehealth include cost savings, time savings, and increased access to care, thus, closing or narrowing the care gaps, especially in the rural and underserved areas. During the high point of the pandemic, healthcare providers and consumers have more readily accepted telemedicine as “just another mode of healthcare delivery”. We no longer have to spend countless hours explaining the use case and benefits of telemedicine and digital healthcare. Patient engagement is still a challenge with some friction to accessing virtual care due to inefficient workflows and technology barriers.
Organizations have either rapidly adapted to providing telemedicine or have changed their IT strategy roadmap to include virtual care sooner than planned. Digital health will continue to provide quality care and services when and where patients need it the most, wherever they are. It also serves a need that covers many of the barriers to receiving care that can be life-changing to many of the recipients.
Continuing conversations to get more laws and policies into place for guidance is key. States are trying to be flexible to get to patients sooner and expand the technology and solutions offered. Policies, regulations, and reimbursement are all areas that will continue to rapidly evolve to support the digital health movement.
Alexis: What are the difficulties and challenges of being a telemedicine innovator?
Michele: Needing to be well versed and paying attention to the constant changes in coverage, payment, and creative ways of reaching the underserved population can be challenging. It is hard to forecast what will be in place permanently as a result of the pandemic and politics. Sustaining the momentum as telemedicine is no longer a luxury but a vital part of care delivery is increasingly important. This is a big challenge due to many state and federal regulations and certain states are more progressive than others. The changing laws and reimbursement guidelines, especially with the pandemic (CMS and commercial payer restrictions), have been a challenge to stay on top of for many organizations as well as with inconsistencies with credentialing and licensure.
Our team is constantly educating the providers, employers, and payors on the benefits of telemedicine, both from a health perspective as well as in terms of cost savings. Continuing to be innovative in the delivery of our services has been a priority for us. While we maintain our core, niche space in telelactation and telenutrition verticals, we have also partnered with innovative organizations to offer customized services for women and their families so they can continue to thrive. We have started partnerships with technology companies that offer applications for locating safe breastfeeding sites, virtual reality for behavioral health in the perinatal and postpartum phases, and training state agencies on the proper way to provide telemedicine visits in addition to expanding our services on our group practice.
Alexis: What particular skill set do you bring to Sonder Health?
Michele: I have had the fortunate opportunity of having many mentors and unique opportunities in my career that have helped me grow and I feel that I bring a variety of skills to the table as a result. I have a unique ability to build teams and allow others to grow and utilize their strengths while supporting them along their journey. I surround myself with really smart people who also share the same values I have when it comes to doing the right thing—for patients, clients, and ourselves.
I will always rely on my fundamental nursing background at my core and my years in behavior health have taught me great crisis management skills!
In addition to my passion for quality care, our patients and clients are at the center of all we do, and they deserve our personal best. Through my years of experience from the hospital to consulting firms, I have developed a leadership style that is inclusive of the team member’s strengths as well as creating a safe environment for their continued growth.
Alexis: What is something you want our readers to know about you?
Michele: When I leave a conversation, I always try to leave them in a better place after having a conversation. Oh, and that I would live in the Tuscany region of Italy for part of the year and the other part of the year in Aruba, only if my family and dogs would come!
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