Intermountain Healthcare began tinkering with telemedicine five years ago.
The Utah-based nonprofit healthcare system rolled out a service where patients could remotely chat on their smartphones with doctors about basic medical problems. Another push was aimed at physicians in rural areas, offering live-streamed consulting expertise on difficult medical issues such stroke evaluation, mental health counseling and premature birth.
Intermountain officials on Wednesday announced they now are doubling down on this “virtual hospital” strategy, joining many other large hospital systems around the country in deploying technological advancements in hopes of providing easier and less expensive care.
The company currently has 35 telemedicine programs, but they are “fragmented” at medical facilities around the state, said Jim Sheets, an Intermountain vice president. So officials said they plan to bring all those efforts under one roof — a 20,000-square foot facility in Murray near Intermountain Medical Center. The site will initially house about 150 of Intermountain’s doctors and other medical experts, Sheets said.
Collectively, these offerings of virtual services will be called Intermountain Connect Care Pro. Officials said it will be one of the nation’s largest virtual hospital services, serving all of Intermountain’s 22 hospitals and 180 clinics, along with nine hospitals outside the system.
The goal is to care for patients closer to home, and only transfer them to large medical centers in the most dire situations.
“We really want to bring bring our critical care specialities and abilities to wherever the sick patients are,” said David Guidry, an assistant medical director for the hospital’s TeleCritical Care program.
As part of the telemedicine push, the hospital system said it also plans to locate patient kiosks in typically underserved areas, giving access at places such as schools, community centers and homeless shelters. The kiosks are equipped with several diagnostic tools, such a thermometer and scale, and patients can receive a virtual check-up from a doctor via a computer screen.
One of the kiosks, already in place at the Columbus Center in South Salt Lake, is meant to serve the refugee community. Intermountain officials said they also plan to expand translation services for non-English speakers.
Officials on Wednesday showed several of the telemedicine technologies they have developed at the company’s testing laboratory in Midvale.
In one example, they demonstrated the ability of a family practice doctor in rural Utah to get help from a neonatologist in Salt Lake City when it appeared a baby might be born prematurely. This allows the doctor to have an expert looking over his shoulder for a potentially complicated birth process, Sheets said. It also would allow the family to stay at their local hospital, instead of having to travel to a urban medical center.
Avoiding that travel can save about $18,000, officials said. And since the telemedicine service for newborn critical care began three years ago, it is estimated to have saved patients a total of about $2.1 million.
Telemedicine also is useful for mental health issues, because rural communities — such as Kanab — have few locally based psychiatrists or other mental health professionals.
“Kanab has had one of the highest suicide rates in the state, not including patients that come to us from our border town in Arizona, and we don’t have a crisis worker here,” Charlene Kelly, chief nursing officer at Kane County Hospital, said in a statement. She said with remote care from Intermountain, “patients receive that crisis evaluation in less than an hour, and if the crisis worker recommends inpatient treatment, they assist in placing the patient.”
Sheets said Intermountain is following in the footsteps of several other large hospital systems pushing to expand telemedicine services, especially in rural areas. They include Avera Health, in South Dakota, and Mercy Health based in St. Louis.
University of Utah Health, based in Salt Lake City, also has a sizeable telemedicine program.
So far, Guidry said, the data is promising.
“We’re keeping sicker patients in our smaller hospitals,” he said, “and they’re having better outcomes.”