Rapidly advancing technology has made its presence felt in many branches of the healthcare sector, causing dramatic and drastic changes. Healthcare professionals today rely on technology in many different ways – from maintaining documents and keeping records to optimizing patient out-times and remote treatments. Not to mention the ability to provide more accurate diagnoses.
After years of effort to sort out PR, regulatory, and reimbursement challenges, telemedicine appears to be on the right track of becoming commonplace, ready to represent a sizable portion of care delivery. That near-term future has crafted a new term – virtual hospitals.
Catch the definition, if you can
Now, what does that term actually mean? We’re certainly talking about telemedicine, but that can mean a lot of different things to different people. Is it about iPad chats between doctors and rural patients, or about the implementation of IoT technology for AI-powered remote monitoring? The fact is that even professionals who’ve been involved with connected health technologies for over 20 years are not able to catch the definition by its tail.
The meaning behind “virtual hospital” usually varies by organization. In most cases, it stands for the group of intensive care physicians who are working in a call center environment. There’s a lot of screens and technology involved, but mostly to guide other users in remote places. Many smaller institutions, besides the fact that they’re difficult to reach, also don’t have full-time specialists. Doctors from virtual hospitals can prevent the waste of time by guiding the staff through medical procedures in an emergency or in critical cases.
Other organizations have embraced the concept of virtual hospitals as central freestanding facilities staffed with healthcare professionals. The best-known example of this concept is the St.Louis-based Mercy Virtual Care Center, opened in 2015 and labeled as the first virtual hospital. Their aim is to reduce the time it takes patients to meet their healthcare providers, but also to eliminate the need for very sick patients to come into hospitals frequently.
Efficient access across the globe
The term ?virtual? may not be the best pick since it sounds like it’s not real, while the provided care is very real. The point is that clinicians can be located anywhere across the globe. Although almost none of them dub themselves as a virtual hospital, around 65% of U.S. hospitals connect patients and practitioners remotely.
On the other hand, a recent survey carried out in Australia has shown that nearly 50% would never visit a virtual hospital. And this is not just because they have Medicare – it’s also about the lack of knowledge on the topic, resulting in the fear that they won’t get the same quality of care as an in-office visit.
To spread across the globe, it’s obvious that this puzzling term needs to be pinned down and explained. So, what does it all boil down to? Its core value is about two things — access and efficiency, and they need to work together.
That doesn’t mean that it’s limited to physicians — for those nurses going out to visit five to 10 patients a day, in a call center where they can monitor patients at home that number can grow to 80 to 100 patients. Of course, they’re powerless in a situation that requires a triple bypass. So, besides working together, access and efficiency need to be kept in balance.
Rethinking traditional ways and breaking old habits
While the above-mentioned goal is clear, the traditional ways and old habits represent obstacles on the path of realization. The patient doesn’t always need to be in the same room with the doctor to receive the treatment, but it has always been that way and doctors are used to office-based care as a way to get paid.
Of course, there are situations that require seeing the patient in the flesh, but reaching the right decision shouldn’t be based on old habits and traditional ways, but on the methodology and practices of triage.
Although science-based, triage is also a kind of art, and sometimes doctors will need a patient in front of them, using all five senses to collect crucial information. In the case of virtual hospitals, the most important first step is asking the right questions. In order to reach the situation where a patient is in the office because he absolutely needs to be, proper triage is the key.
One day a designated app will probably be able to wear that triage hat. But, although popular, mobile apps are still a relatively new thing in healthcare delivery systems. But eventually, there’ll be an app or customized website able to determine the level of care that patient needs, and it very well can happen in the next few years.
Faraway, so close!
While automated triage is still part dream, virtual hospitals are definitely ready for patients with chronic
diseases who are in a constant struggle to manage their illness. A great part of that struggle is the apparent lack of freedom since they feel tied to hospitals for life. But with a mini-iPad and Bluetooth peripherals in accordance with their condition, such as a pulse oximeter or a blood pressure cuff, they’re able to maintain regular visits with their clinician without setting foot in the hospital.
Furthermore, the clinician can get a closer look at the living conditions of the patient, and even peek at the contents of the pantry or refrigerator. This will not only leave any social determinants unaddressed but also make a far more meaningful connection with the patient. Being able to check in more frequently, physicians will be able to ensure that major health events such as a heart attack are not followed by depression or even suicidal thoughts. Although doctors in these cases might seem far removed from their patients and their needs, they’ve actually never been closer.
It’s undeniable that virtual hospitals are changing the future of healthcare in terms of quicker access, better efficiency, and greater involvement without the sake of freedom. But it is not just about technology – it’s more about how it is applied. The resources are there, but they require the involvement of everyone, doctors, patients, and institutions. The future doesn’t lie simply in virtualizing an old model – technology is a tool, so it all comes down to the question of what problem are we solving with it?