Helping patients with COVID-19 get the care they need

Stepping in to help those in need is what Dr. Tom Biuso does best. As chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare in Arizona and senior medical director in the west region, he helps to ensure the network has the tools they need to provide cost-efficient, quality care. On the weekends, he works as a hospitalist at Tucson Medical Center to help meet the needs of critically and acutely ill patients.

Dr. Biuso also helps out early in the morning, teaching the next generation of medical students and housestaff, as a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona, School of Medicine.  

All of this help, however, was put on hold or majorly altered, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Dr. Biuso’s passion to help others needed to adapt to fit a new need.  

“When the pandemic struck, I had to stop practicing in order to continue caregiving for one of my family members,” Dr. Biuso said. “But I still wanted to help, so I found a new way to make a difference for members with COVID-19.”  

That difference came in the form of outreach.  Dr. Biuso used several databases and electronic medical records to find UnitedHealth Commercial COVID-19 patients who had been discharged from the hospitals in Arizona. He personally called many of them to ask if they had any pressing concerns that UnitedHealthcare could address.

“Patients discharged from the hospital have needs related to their social demographics, their support system, and the actual clinical condition,” Dr. Biuso said. “As a hospitalist, I knew there would be needs post-discharge that we, UnitedHealthcare, could help fulfill.”

In most cases, COVID-19 patients released from the hospital were not assigned a case manager and he found that he could readily help many members. For example, he stepped in to help patients secure oxygen at discharge, directed them to re-testing sites, connected members with a physician and helped family members choose particular long-term acute care facilities or skilled nursing homes when needed. He also helped direct members with financial questions regarding their COVID-19 treatment or testing to the right staff.

Being fluent in Spanish, he was able to help remove communication barriers for Latino members, which make up a large portion of the region’s health plan. This eliminated the need for interpreters, which resulted in more direct answers and a better interaction with the member or family proxy during a stressful time.

Filling this need during a national crisis — particularly in Arizona, which became a hot spot for COVID-19 — has proved to be a critical service to the members Dr. Biuso serves. By understanding the needs of recovering COVID-19 patients in his market, he was able to identify how to best support them.    

“Out of an improvisational strategy to help patients, I landed on one of the most fulfilling tasks that I have done as a medical director at UnitedHealthcare over the last 13 years,” Dr. Biuso said. “It was rewarding to be able to help many of our commercial members personally.”

Reflecting on this effort, Dr. Biuso found ways to better help members going forward. Whether that’s ensuring patients are given case managers at discharge or simply providing more outreach to help during crisis situations, he learned the importance of asking the simple question of, “how can I help?”