Using technology to deliver better care is a challenge for many hospitals, but effective technology use is important to improving patient outcomes and avoiding readmissions. One hospital is helping its patients stay healthy with an innovative approach to treatment that relies on telemedicine

An article from CNN Money discusses the strategy.

Mercy Hospital in St. Louis wanted to make sure its patients avoided multiple unnecessary trips to the hospital for illnesses and conditions that could be treated at home, so it started using telehealth as a tool to see patients.

To do this, Mercy Hospital created the Mercy Virtual Care Center, a $54 million facility staffed entirely by providers who evaluate patients remotely. Doctors place video calls to patients using two-way cameras, and they can also monitor their vital signs through sensors attached to an iPad.

The care center is known as “the hospital without beds,” and it’s been open since October 2015. According to the CNN article, it’s the first facility of its kind in the country.

Remote care delivery

Patients who feel ill enough to warrant a trip to the emergency department can call into Mercy’s telemedicine center first. Like an ED, the center’s staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Right now, the hospital’s telemedicine center is participating in a pilot program to coordinate care for patients who have multiple complex chronic illnesses requiring regular follow-up appointments.

On a weekly basis, care navigators check in with these patients, asking them the same questions about their health that they’d hear from a doctor in a hospital setting.

If patients report any discomfort, navigators visually evaluate their symptoms through the video call and review their vital signs to see if further medical intervention is required. Sometimes all it takes is rest or a change in medication for patients to feel better, and that keeps them from an unnecessary visit to the ED for evaluation.

Challenges & drawbacks

While this technology-based approach is popular with many patients, critics say it may make it difficult to achieve continuity of care, since patients may not always speak to the same navigator on each video call.

However, the hospital does its best to make sure patients speak to the same person each time, and it also works closely with patients’ primary care providers so they’re aware of patients’ health needs.

The technology aspect might also not be as user-friendly for older patients. Some of them aren’t comfortable with using tablets, and they may get confused by the basics of video calling. In these instances, though, Mercy staff work with patients’ technology abilities so they don’t negatively affect care delivery.

Example: For one 99-year-old patient, Mercy modified the program so she wouldn’t have to use the tablet herself. The consultation takes place during a regular phone call, and a family member records her vital signs manually.

Despite any drawbacks, the telemedicine center has already made a positive impact on Mercy Hospital. In the short time it’s been open, ED visits and hospitalizations have already decreased by 33%.

Telemedicine for hospitals

While it may not be ideal for every hospital to open a virtual care center, integrating some telehealth technology into patients’ post-discharge plans can be beneficial. Telemedicine evaluations may discourage some people from unnecessary hospital trips, saving money and resources that can be used elsewhere.

Plus, it’s an easier way for your hospitals’ providers to keep tabs on a patient’s recovery after a hospital stay and make sure the person is following discharge instructions so he or she won’t be readmitted.

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