Webcam program reinvents doctors’ house calls
March 2, 2012
Utah’s largest medical services nonprofit, Intermountain Healthcare, is preparing to launch a new program that will bring back the long lost practice of house calls, with a modern twist.
Intermountain sees the program being used like this: A new mother attempts to calm her crying infant at two in the morning. She suspects has her baby has an ear ache, but she decides not to take the feverish child to the hospital. Instead, she sits down at her home computer. In less than an hour, she is picking up a doctor’s prescription from her pharmacy.
"Intermountain Healthcare is about patient-centric care," said the Intermountain Medical Director for Telehealth Services, Dr. Wesley Valdes. "We are all about providing an extraordinary experience for the patient. What’s more extraordinary then making healthcare so convenient and accessible that you could do it from home?"
The program, which plans to use the Park City Medical Center as a test site, relies on telehealth practices where patients and doctors can be in the same room at the same time using nothing more than a webcam and a computer with internet access.
"There are several different platforms to implement telehealth," said Jason Murray, the Park City Medical Center Director of Ancillary Support Services. "A person can reach their primary care physician from any computer once we have the online infrastructure up and running. The other benefit is how we’ve set up satellite offices in the hospitals so someone can come here to access any specialist. This will improve access and decrease cost."
The telehealth system was developed to be used online where the user visits the website and can immediately place a video chat call without a username or registration. Once connected to an operator who will take the basic insurance and patient information, the user will be connected to a doctor, nurse or specialist.
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A patient using the program would log onto the Intermountain Healthcare website from home or at the hospital in one of the two specially designed rooms for the program.
The pilot program launches in April for a 90-day trial period during which employees of the Park City Medical Center will be able to access the system. After the pilot program ends, the organization hopes to broaden access to the online, webcam-based program to more Utahns, in particular areas like Park City.
Murray of the Park City Medical Center said the program will be in a testing phase for the next few months, but he feels that once the project is up and running to nearby residents, its implications could keep stretching.
"The initial sample size of employees will test equipment to make sure it interfaces properly," he said. "Once that’s done we can really see where this program can go."
The Park City Medical Center could be positively impacted by opening the hospital’s access to more doctors with advice on diagnosing or treating a patient.
"We can hook you up with a dietician just as easily as we can if you needed a physician," Valdes said. "We can hook you up to a nurse. Maybe you’re a new mom and you want to talk to a lactation consultant."
Plans for the program don’t stop at the home office. Patients could talk to family members during a long hospital stay or show off a newborn baby to family members too far away to visit. Valdes said the program is already exploring other options for smartphone applications that use video chat.
Along with the at-home options, patients would be able to schedule consultations with specialists from across the country. The program has even invested in Bluetooth medical tools such as a wireless stethoscope and otoscope, so doctors can see a few basic vital signs without being anywhere near the patient.
"We’re working on the platform technology," Valdes said, "but how it will be used will be up to patient."