For Mercy patients in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas, the next trip to the doctors office may not include shaking the doctors hand. Instead, the healthcare provider's patients could soon see their doctors on a television screen and undergo a virtual examination.
If it sounds far fetched, you may not be wrong, according to Mercy Clinic president Dr. Cole Goodman, who said the idea of virtual examinations was something he was not sure would have been on the horizon even three years ago.
But Tuesday (May 13), Mercy Health System joined its 32 hospitals in four states — including its hospitals in Fort Smith and Rogers — for a virtual "groundbreaking" event, making the start of construction on the nation's first virtual care center.
According to Lynn Britton, the healthcare system's president and CEO, construction of the Chesterfield, Mo., – a suburb of St. Louis – virtual care center will allow Mercy to reach patients across the nation with specialists without having to leave the comfort of their local medical clinic.
"Telemedicine lets us provide the best possible care to people where and when they need it — even when patients wouldn't otherwise have access to specialists, such as neurologists and pediatric cardiologists," he said. "The center will bring together the nation's best telehealth professionals to reach more patients, develop more telemedicine services and improve how we deliver virtual care through education and innovation."
The new virtual care center will be a four-story, 120,000-square-foot building that will house 300 physicians, nurses, specialists, researchers and support staff, according to Mercy.
"This is a great day for Mercy and our Northwest Arkansas community. This virtual care center will create access to the best and brightest physicians in the country while allowing the convenience to our patients and their families right here in their hometown,” said Eric Pianalto, Mercy NWA Hospital president.
Patients will receive care any time day or night "via audio, video and data connections to locations across Mercy as well as outside of Mercy through partnerships with other health acre providers and large employers." The healthcare provider expects to log more than three million telehealth visits in the next five years.
An example of what may be more prevalent recently played out in Northwest Arkansas. According to a story in The Kansas City Star, Bob Quinlan, a resident of Rogers, Ark., traveled to St. Louis in August to correct his atrial fibrillation.
“Rather than make the nearly seven-hour return trip for a checkup, Quinlan drove to the Mercy hospital in his hometown. There, monitors allowed his St. Louis specialist to see how Quinlan's heart was functioning, even listen to his heartbeat through a stethoscope connected to a computer,” the story noted.
Quinlan, in a statement provided to The City Wire by Mercy NWA, said the technology provided a health benefit.
“Being able to see my specialist in St. Louis right here in my doctor's office is convenient. It's much easier for me to take an hour out of my day than take a day and a half trip to follow-up and stay on top of my health,” Quinlan said in the statement.
And while the virtual care center is not slated to open until 2015, Mercy Fort Smith President Ryan Gehrig told a crowd assembled at his local facility that telemedicine was already in use across the healthcare system's hospitals.
"We're already using telemedicine in a lot of avenues. Mercy SafeWatch eICU — as you may know, Mercy has the largest virtual ICU network in the country and we are one of the community hospitals that has that (infrastructure)."
Goodman said with the rise of telemedicine and anticipation of the virtual care center, Mercy Clinic is constructing new clinics with the infrastructure installed to handle telemedicine, allowing patients to see specialists when needed.
Gehrig explained that having the virtual care center and telemedicine capabilities allowed the hospitals across the system to bring specialists into the local market, meaning that while recruitment of specialists to the region would continue, patients would no longer have to travel out of town to get needed care.
Mercy Fort Smith Chief Operating Officer Matt Keep said even if Fort Smith or Northwest Arkansas clinics and hospitals under the Mercy banner land a specialist and no longer need to virtually connect to one, it would not stop them from providing services to other clinics across the system.
"We'll still obviously recruit for the needs that we have in our community. A good example in this is two ways. It's not just services that we'll be receiving from a virtual care center. We have physicians that are already part of working through the virtual care center. Our neurologist is doing teleneurology for other communities. When he has some downtime, he's volunteered to do that. So he's taking care of patients in other communities."
Gehrig said the patient capacity for the virtual center would be practically limitless, with such a large number of specialists on hand in Chesterfield and others available throughout the system.
It was a point Britton made, as well, as he pointed to Mercy's more than 10 years experience in telemedicine.
"We've pioneered a telehealth plan that no longer limits advanced care because of age, illness or geography. We can deliver a higher level of care to more people, and the virtual care center is at the heart of it — providing care for today while also developing the health care of tomorrow."