This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal online.
Around 8 p.m. on Jan. 20, I received the call: A test had confirmed that one of the hospitals where I oversee clinical care, in Everett, Wash., had admitted the first Covid-19 patient in the U.S. The coronavirus bomb went off in our corner of the country that day, and we quickly realized that the pandemic would change health care faster than anything before. We are now leveraging telehealth technology in ways that will last long after this pandemic.
The Providence health system, where I work, now has more than 1,200 beds occupied by patients who have the virus or are suspected of having it across the seven states in the western U.S. where we operate. We’re now testing more than 11,000 people a day and are running four clinical trials.
Within several weeks we were sharing lessons we had learned, from the importance of planning and data to treating all patients suspected of infection as though they already had it. We shared remote technology with colleagues, such as an online AI tool to help patients determine for themselves, from home, the level of care they need and how to get it.
The severity and suddenness of the Covid-19 emergency have hastened changes to how we deliver care. Red tape that initially hamstrung the Food and Drug Administration has been removed to speed the development of testing and treatments. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued waivers that allow cross-state licensing of medical professionals and reimbursement for telehealth measures. We’ve been trying to accomplish some of these things for years, and they all happened in the last six weeks.
Long before Covid-19, our team had created a strategic plan called “Clinical Care 2030” to use technology to provide personalized, affordable care by the end of this decade. Those priorities are suddenly on the fast track. We’re using technology today in ways that any public or private health system can do, in the current emergency and in the future.
To increase intensive care capacity, our teleICU command centers remotely monitor ICU rooms and direct care as needed. A nurse at a command center in Montana can monitor ICU patients in a Washington hospital and alert a physician to a change in a patient’s status, just as if they were located in the same building.
For staffing shortages, our “telehospitalist” program lets hospitals bring in more physicians in a hurry. We have more than 10,000 doctors enrolled to help manage patients remotely, which can provide expert care in an area experiencing a surge of patients without needing to physically move the physicians.
So far, most patients don’t need to be hospitalized, and treating people at home lets us reserve our limited acute care resources for those with severe symptoms. Our telehealth service is keeping a virtual eye on patients showing signs of possible Covid-19 via a pulse oximeter (a simple oxygen sensor placed on the finger) and a digital thermometer. If symptoms worsen, we quickly arrange additional care. We have monitored over 500 patients so far and have the capacity for 4,000, with more in the works.
Covid-19 has created a global crisis, but it has also fueled a sudden leap toward the future of medicine. Across the country, we are driving changes that will bring better health care to everyone once this nightmare finally ends.