A couple of years ago, I wrote an item describing the Mercy Virtual Care Center, a four-story, $54 million venture which describes itself as a “hospital without beds.” The Center, which launched in October 2015, has more than 300 staffers. After one year of operation, the Virtual Care program had cut emergency department visits and hospitalizations by an impressive 33%.
Now, Intermountain Healthcare is following in Mercy’s footsteps. Last month, Intermountain announced a launch of its virtual hospital service, Connect Care Pro, which brings together 35 telehealth programs and more than 500 clinicians. Its goals are to supplement existing staff and provide specialized services in rural communities where some types of care are not available.
Unlike Mercy’s offering, Connect Care Pro’s services aren’t located in a single building, but according to Intermountain, it can still provide much of the care that you find at a large, sophisticated hospital. It describes its approach as clinically integrated and digitally enabled. (I’m not sure what clinical integration looks like in telehealth, so I’d love to hear more about that in the future.)
In explaining why Connect Care Pro matters, Intermountain tells the story of an infant admitted to a southern Utah hospital which needed intensive services. Because the infant was supported via Connect Care Pro, it received a remote critical care consultation rather than having to be transferred to a different ICU in Salt Lake City. Avoiding the transfer saved over $18,000 and allowed the baby’s parents to remain in their community.
Now, all Intermountain Healthcare hospitals, including 10 of its rural hospitals, use the virtual hospital’s services to build on their existing offerings. Also, nine hospitals outside of the Intermountain system have signed up to use Connect Care Pro.
While I might’ve missed something in my searches, from what I can tell few hospitals systems have gone to the trouble of creating a fully-fledged virtual hospital service, though many are offering telemedicine options to support rural hospitals and clinics.
Part of the reason may be financial. After all, as noted above, Mercy did spend more than $50 million to create its hospital without walls. However, I’d argue that the main reason for hospitals haven’t created similar centers is that they simply don’t understand their benefits, and to some extent may be in denial about the extent to which medical care is becoming decentralized.
Despite the costs and effort involved, I do think we’ll see more virtual hospitals emerge over the next few years. I just don’t think most hospital systems are ready to move ahead just yet.