As one of seven kids and the son of two physicians, Dr. Jimmy McElligott often took care of his younger siblings, and it surprised no one when he decided to become a pediatrician.
He graduated from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and the Wake Forest School of Medicine and came to the Medical University of South Carolina for his residency for pediatrics. After completing a fellowship at the Charleston University, he stayed on in an academic position and became focused on helping underserved children access care. There, McElligott saw the need to draw attention to the increasing gap in care in poor communities. That led him to telehealth.
“I got involved with some of the grassroots efforts to use virtual care to reach out to patients, and at my own institution, got involved in some health disparity-focused areas to improve health in South Carolina,” McElligott recalls. “People pushed me to the forefront, sort of leading the effort, and rapidly my predominantly academic position transitioned to more of a leadership executive position.”
Today, McElligott serves as the executive medical director for the Center of Telehealth at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Back in 2011, MUSC began thinking about the expanding telemedicine capabilities and McElligott started to put together a plan. He applied for some grants, gathered coordinators, and put together a workbook on telehealth that would become the guide for MUSC to follow.
“The effort to use virtual care to solve some of South Carolina’s health problems became a big deal and a big priority for MUSC,” McElligott shares. “I had to quickly learn how to do a lot of strategic planning, learn the different modalities, and learn how to work as a leader with other stakeholders throughout the state.”
Thanks to a $100 million-plus investment by the state, McElligott and his team of fifty have been able to advance telehealth, enhance the patient experience, and strategically integrate the technology throughout the system to support patients throughout their whole journey.
“When I first started down the path, the idea was for school-based telehealth: to find some of the underserved and rural schools and connect with telehealth,” he explains. “It wasn’t known if it was allowable in that way or billable, but we decided to get a grant and see if it could work.”
That led to a better understanding of the problems there were and what needed to happen to make things better.
“I spent a lot of time on the road, driving through rural South Carolina, meeting school nurses and talking with people about their concerns,” McElligott recalls. “I ended up going to the Board of Medical Examiners probably four or five times over a series of two years and talking with them about concerns and coming back with reassurances.”
It wasn’t long before his time dedicated to practicing pediatrics was reduced, and instead was leading the charge for telehealth at MUSC’s Center of Telehealth. That meant telehealth programs for pregnant women, patients with diabetes, patients addicted to opioids, and more specialized care for those who needed it, like stroke survivors.
“Since then, it’s really been more about clinical care transformation than it is about using video or any other technology,” McElligott explains. “It’s about how you change the way you do practice, why you change, and how to make things more efficient.”
Of course, when the pandemic hit, McElligott had to rethink everything. The telehealth goals changed, the bar changed, and it was time for telehealth to reach the potential he knew it could.
“I was fortunate that the state and MUSC had really, truly invested in telehealth and it was a core strategy,” McElligott notes. “The pandemic validated a lot of our philosophies about why telehealth should be used—it should be used to make things efficient and should be for everyone.”
At the start of the pandemic, a lot of physicians were worried about the prospect of telehealth and seeing patients over video, but thanks to enough leadership direction, good planning, and data, telehealth has thrived throughout the pandemic. But some things needed to be simplified.
“When I first started down the path, the idea was for school-based telehealth: to find some of the underserved and rural schools and connect with telehealth.”
“We realized we needed to make things simpler for the patient, user experience had to get better, and digital literacy had to get way better,” McElligott says. “The eighty-year-old living alone in rural South Carolina needed to know how to use this, so we had to figure out how to walk everyone through it.”
For the most part, telehealth has been recognized as an effective solution and is now being used by patients and providers in record numbers—even Medicare and insurance companies are on-board with payments. That’s been a big part of acceptance and adoption as well.
“At one point, over half of care was virtual at the beginning of the pandemic,” McElligott explains. “What my job turned into is trying to help a whole enterprise figure out the strategy of what is the right amount. People are trying to figure out what telehealth can be used for and balance their spreadsheets to plan for the future.”
Looking ahead, McElligott expects to concentrate on some new technology shifts that are changing virtual health and working to make things more cost efficient and streamline the processes the best way possible.
“My job has gotten bigger, because everyone is using telehealth now,” he says. “I’ve been part of an amazing ride over the last decade or so, and for me, it’s really all about the mission.”
The South Carolina Department of Mental Health’s mission is to support the recovery of people with mental illnesses. The state’s public mental health system serves approximately 100,000 people each year, including children, adolescents, adults, and families, statewide. Founded in 1821, it is one of the largest hospital and community-based systems of care in South Carolina.