Delivering virtual counseling services
ERC: Counselors & Consultants is a Wisconsin-based organization that provides mental health services to companies’ employees as a healthcare benefit. As a Wipfli partner, ERC’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offers counseling sessions for qualified employees facing mental health challenges. In the company’s traditional model, clients schedule an appointment and meet counselors face to face so that counselors can pick up visual and other clues and guide patients accordingly.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.
Evolving in response to an unprecedented event
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted healthcare practices in more than one way. Although ERC had planned to implement video conferencing and telephonic support, their timeline was moved up significantly in order to respond to the pandemic and the urgent need for evolving their service model.
Soon after stay-at-home orders started going into effect, Wipfli senior IT manager Dan Miller called ERC to see if they needed any help with their IT systems in response to increased remote workloads. When he learned about the company’s need to implement virtual counseling capabilities, he and the team devised a solution.
Conditions of service
After consulting closely with ERC, Dan knew that any solution Wipfli devised would need to meet three basic conditions:
- Client appointments would need to follow the rules outlined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for confidentiality and security of patient health information.
- The counselors’ contact information needed to be anonymized when used in any scheduling protocol.
- Client-counselor sessions could not be recorded, so recording functions would need to be deactivated in advance.
Microsoft Teams to the rescue
Wipfli worked with ERC to deploy a video-conferencing solution through Microsoft Teams. Many insurance companies cover telehealth appointments, and Teams includes robust video calling that can be used via phone or tablet, making it an excellent tool for ERC’s needs.
To address the HIPAA challenge, the Wipfli team shared documents from the Microsoft Trust Center that demonstrated the solution’s compliance. Teams offers security options, safeguards and encryption to help protect user privacy and defend against cyberattacks. Wipfli shared guidance regarding telehealth appointments from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. With this information, ERC was able to implement best practices around telehealth counseling.
Wipfli created a pilot solution, which ERC then test drove for a few days to iron out any wrinkles in the system and ensure that the system met all criteria.
“We showcased each aspect and gained their buy-in each time and tweaked each component according to needs,” says Miller.
Ramping up with remote services
After a two-week implementation period, ERC now uses the Wipfli Teams-driven solution to deliver telehealth counseling services for those who cannot or would rather not meet in person. The client receives an email with a link to use to meet with the counselor through video conferencing.
The ERC team of over 20 staff members also uses Teams, not just to deliver client-facing services but also for internal collaboration.
Overall, the addition of Microsoft Teams and virtual services helped ERC pivot to protect their clients and staff, as well as to ensure they are fully equipped to continue supporting clients throughout the pandemic and beyond in the ways that best meet their needs given their individual situations.
Other service-driven businesses can take away a few lessons from the ERC solution, Miller says:
- Technology does not always need to be used only to enhance productivity. Take a second look at your existing tools. Some of them might also offer a means to redefine your company’s service delivery model.
- Think outside the box when it comes to service delivery.
- Use technology not just to redefine existing services but also to explore new revenue streams.
The ability to quickly move from an in-person service delivery model to a virtual one is something that ERC deeply appreciates.
“You are honorary members of our COVID-19 response team,” Steve Baue, CEO and president at ERC, told the Wipfli team. “Your guidance and work to get our platform HIPAA-compliant and customized to our particular needs is greatly appreciated.”
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