Virtual health center expands hospital's reach to patients

While most healthcare services are moving into the virtual realm, telehealth may to be heading the other direction. At least that's the case at Chesterfield, Mo.-based Mercy Health System.

Mercy just announced plans to build a new, $90 million "virtual health center" to house a host of telehealth services under one roof. The center will "be staffed by hundreds of doctors and nurses linked electronically to Mercy hospitals, clinics and even patient homes via telemedicine technology," officials say.

I was fascinated by this new brick-and-mortar approach to virtual care. Heretofore, hospitals have cobbled together video equipment, software and telecom connections in conference rooms or unused patient rooms or physician offices. In Mercy's virtual health center, however, telehealth is taking center stage, with the entire building wired for video conferencing, remote patient monitoring and other teleservices.

First to move into the new center when it's completed in 2013 will be the health system's two existing telehealth programs. One is a 400-bed tele-ICU called SafeWatch, which officials say is the largest in the nation. The other is a long-standing telestroke program that provides neurologists on-call 24/7 for ER teleconsults.

But that's the tip of the iceberg, Mercy officials insist. Other teleservices they plan to add under the new roof include:

  • Teleradiology: The hospital is creating a round-the-clock radiology team that can read images immediately and provide tele-consults for radiology groups in the system.
  • Telepathology: Also available 24/7 would be a pathology team available to all Mercy facilities to help diagnose patient conditions.
  • Primary care support: Specialty physicians would provide telehealth sessions to patients in rural areas.
  • On-call nursing: Nurses would triage patients by phone or video chat to determine whether they needed in-person, emergency or virtually enabled care.
  • Remote patient monitoring: The hospital would provide classic, home-based monitoring of weight, blood pressure, EKGs and other vitals.

It's an ambitious project, to be sure. In its favor is that Mercy has keyed in on established tele-services like tele-ICU, teleradiology and on-call nursing, which may help speed implementation.

What is less certain is whether having a building full of clinicians working virtually makes sense without a clear path for reimbursement of their services. Hospital officials say they'll be spending $290 million on the technology embedded in the center, but give no indication how they'll pay for it in the end. We (and the industry at large) will be eagerly watching to see if they manage to find a solid revenue stream for their new virtual care model.

Tell us what you think: Can virtual care survive in the real world? - Sara (@FierceHealthIT)