Remote IT allows docs to care for ICU patients from a distance

Telehealth efforts gain ground, reducing hospital deaths, costs

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"I'm a big fan," said Leo Dufault, referring to the eICU technology. "It's the best thing since sliced bread. My life was saved. How do you convince someone that you're foolish not to use these?"

Walking in Wal-Mart

In was on June 26, 2008, that Dufault, then 68, suffered "cardiac death" while taking an exercise walk inside the Wal-Mart across from his house. Dufault hit the floor so hard he cracked his skull and for all intents and purposes was dead. The chances of the retired construction engineer recovering without serious brain damage were slim, according to Shaffer.

Leo and Barbara DeFault
Leo and Barbara Dufault. (Image: Leo Dufault)

But Dufault was fortunate to wind up at Palm Bay Hospital just a few minutes away from the Wal-Mart. That hospital, part of the Health First healthcare system, had an eICU remote communications cart. On the cart was a two-way camera, a high-definition computer monitor and LAN-connected health monitoring equipment that allowed Shaffer, who was located in Health First's VitalWatch eICU, to assess the situation and direct ER physicians through what was for them an unfamiliar therapeutic hypothermia procedure.

A single eICU staffed by one critical care physician and two nurses can effectively keep tabs on up to 120 patients. That's because special software, called eCareManager from Philips Healthcare, monitors each patient's vital signs, providing "smart" alerts about any health-threatening changes.

Philips Healthcare said its customers are already using the eICU model to bring telehealth support to the emergency room, the surgical floor and long-term acute care facilities. Others are looking at extending telehealth support to skilled nursing facilities and even into a patient's home.

"If a heart rate changes 15 beats in a three-hour period for a particular patient, that may send up an alert for the physician or nurse," said Frank Sample, CEO of the Philips tele-ICU system. "The monitoring software offers a one-page thumbnail graphic for heart rate, blood count and all the other vital signs as they're actually happening."

Philips eICU technology is not the only product on the market today. Cerner, Epic, iMDsoft and others sell teleICU platforms that are used throughout the country.

A patient dashboard

If a patient's health goes south, TeleICU technology is able to alert trained physicians and nurses who can bring up a profile page and dig deeper into the patient's health history to determine the cause of the problem. At that time, physicians will typically turn on the remote camera and begin watching the patient and conversing with nurses on scene.

"It creates a sense of collaboration," Sample said.

For example, if a patient goes into cardiac arrest and a nurse performs CPR, the eICU physician can monitor an electrocardiogram readout and the calibration off a ventilator to determine the effectiveness of the procedure.

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