St. Luke’s Health System is spending $4 million to open a virtual hospital to centralize and grow its telehealth program and better serve the state’s rural population.

A big western healthcare system is joining the small but growing ranks of systems opening virtual hospitals.

St. Luke’s Health System, Boise, Idaho’s largest healthcare system with eight medical centers, 1,000 total beds and 200 clinics, is spending $4 million to open a virtual hospital to centralize and grow its telehealth program and better serve the state’s rural population, among other goals. “The timing for this is perfect,” says St. Luke’s senior director of telehealth services Krista Stadler.

The center opened in late August as a separate 35,000 square-foot-facility that will house TeleICU, or a video and audio intensive care unit, that provides specialty care and decision support to critically ill patients and their bedside care teams at hospitals across Idaho, virtual clinic consultation rooms for video doctor visits and other features.

The virtual hospital will eventually employ as many as 350 healthcare providers and related technology and services staff to provide clinic and hospital consultations and remote care monitoring. “We are about 25% staffed now,” Stadler says.

St. Luke’s already conducts more than 80,000 video visits each year, will use two-way cameras and remote monitoring equipment at virtual care stations to diagnose and treat patients hundreds of miles and multiple mountain passes away, Stadler says. Virtual critical care providers will monitor patients’ vital signs, closely watch critical patients, order tests as needed, read results and provide the expertise of specialists who can immediately evaluate patients in an emergency.

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The new virtual health center includes telehealth and remote monitoring support for urology, nephrology, pediatric specialty programs and sleep medicine, with more to come, Stadler says. The remote visit may also involve a primary care physician or other healthcare providers such as diabetes educators, registered dietitians, pharmacists and social workers. This virtual care technology allows specialty providers to care for multiple patients in multiple locations at once, Stadler says.

“Patients heal best at home, and surrounded by people who love and care for them,” Stadler says. “For our providers, it keeps them off the road—decreasing provider travel time allows them to use time not behind a wheel, but seeing patients.”

St. Luke’s spent about 30 months researching, building and opening its new virtual hospital. Idaho is a rural state—Idaho covers 82,747 square miles, with a 2017 estimated population of 1.72 million residents, of which 33%, or 564,600 residents, live in rural areas, says the Rural Health Information Hub, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A main goal of the new virtual health center and to help St. Luke’s, which provides nearly 2 million clinic visits and 784,282 hospital outpatient visits annually, is to extend more care options to rural areas. But equally important is helping the health system reduce unnecessary costs and improve clinical outcomes. For example, a recent pilot test for remote patient monitoring for cardiology and diabetes care resulted in a 38% reduction in emergency department visits, a 54% reduction in hospital visits and a 65% decrease in hospital stays, although St. Luke’s didn’t break out specific figures. “We’re doing this because as a health system it’s time for us to evolve,” she says.

St. Luke’s joins a small but growing cadre of health systems launching virtual hospitals. Other health systems also operating or about to open virtual hospitals include Mercy in St. Louis and Intermountain Healthcare, the largest health system in Utah.

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As its virtual hospital grows, St. Luke’s also will expand its innovation lab to test and implement other emerging virtual care technology. “Virtual care allows St. Luke’s providers to shift from a reactive to proactive mode in order to help patients stay healthy and identify problems before they become emergencies,” says St. Luke’s telehealth medical director Eric Rich. “The result is a better quality of life, fewer trips to the emergency department with a serious illness or problem, it allows patients to live at their own home much longer and decreases the total cost of care.”

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