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The Covid-19 Crisis Has Broken Down Barriers Around Telemedicine

The Covid-19 Crisis Has Broken Down Barriers Around Telemedicine
An employee at CHI Franciscan Health’s telemedicine center in Tacoma, Wash., monitoring far-flung patients’ vital signs. (Credit: Evan McGlinn/NYT)

Advancing technology is driving the proliferation of virtual hospitals. This can keep the patient, as well as other patients and medical professionals, safe from potential infection. The Covid-19 crisis has broken down barriers and reservations around telemedicine, according to experts.

This article was first published on April 7, 2020.

Located on a suburban street in downtown Tacoma, a few blocks from the frigid waters of Puget Sound in Washington state, CHI Franciscan’s Virtual Hospital has much in common with other healthcare facilities. It has a small army of nurses and other caregivers, engaged on a daily basis caring for the sick and infirm—monitoring vital signs, reading medical charts, recording information, and chatting with patients. It has a cafeteria. It even has an intensive care unit.

But there’s one thing CHI Franciscan’s Virtual Hospital doesn’t have: beds.

Backed up by an AI-powered, “NASA-style” Mission Control Center, which opened in nearby Gig Harbor in 2019, CHI’s Virtual Hospital is an integral part of a nine-hospital system, with all “real” healthcare facilities tethered to this virtual hub. Using the latest telehealth technology, which includes smart monitors and the latest software algorithms, medical staff at the hospital provide backup services for busy doctors and nurses on the ground.

Jessica Schlicher, Medical Director of CHI Franciscan’s Virtual Hospital and Mission Contol Center, said:

“Through digital technology, virtual hospitals can connect caregivers and patients, regardless of geographic obstacles. Through this connection, CHI’s Virtual Hospital adds vigilance to inpatient stays and other hospital care, enhancing safety and medical outcomes, and reducing waiting times.”

Transformative Tech

CHI Franciscan’s virtual hospital is just one example of a virtualization trend that is now rapidly gaining traction in healthcare provision across the world. From the United Arab Emirates to Finland, this is seeing a growing number of medical specialists deliver remote care for patients, sometimes at distances of hundreds of kilometers.

As technology evolves, so the concept of the virtual hospital is evolving too. The recently opened LifeBridge Health Virtual Hospital in Baltimore combines telemedicine services, a clinical command center, and international call centers located in Israel and the Philippines to provide the patients of Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital with timely, coordinated care.

Virtual care (Credit: CHU Franciscan)
Virtual care (Credit: CHI Franciscan)

Jonathan Thierman, the virtual hospital’s medical director, explained:

“Our unique setup relies on an innovative software system that tracks bed status at all of our hospitals, cutting edge EMR (electronic medical records) and video systems customized for telehealth, and an advanced CRM (customer relationship management) software suite.”

The ultimate goal of LifeBridge Health’s virtual facility is to make it easier for patients to receive quality care, which allows healthcare experts to see more people in less time and thereby care for more individuals overall. Jonathan Thierman said:

“These advantages, driven by technology, also bring down costs due to the increased efficiency of the healthcare process. Virtual hospitals should enhance patient access, convenience and affordability.”

Keeping patients at a distance from doctors has other benefits too. Thierman said:

“The current Covid-19 pandemic highlights one of the major advantages of telemedicine, in that it allows a patient to be seen remotely. This can keep the patient, as well as other patients and medical professionals, safe from potential infection.”

IoT Technology

Thanks to high definition video and two-way communication devices, medical staff in virtual hospitals can already seamlessly interact with patients and their family members as they provide remote consultations. The development of IoT technology is also seeing a growing number of such facilities employ sensors, wearables, fall detection devices and radio frequency identification. These help healthcare providers track vital signs of critical patients, identify security breaches, falls or stumbles, and predict when a patient may need medical care.

Thierman added:

“Advancing technology is rapidly increasing the appeal of telemedicine. The Covid-19 crisis has really broken down barriers and reservations around this new type of medical delivery. Even after the crisis has subsided, a greater appreciation and demand for telemedicine will redefine the healthcare landscape.”

(Credit: CHI Franciscan)
Virtual hospitals can watch patients. (Credit: CHI Franciscan)