MARYVILLE, Mo. — A patient, a nurse and a robot walk into a hospital room after hours.
No, it’s not the beginning of a bad joke, it’s the wave of the future. And it’s happening right now at SSM Health St. Francis Hospital in Maryville.
On Sept. 10, for the first time, the hospital utilized its new “nighttime telemedicine” program, which allows a doctor thousands of miles away to treat a patient anywhere in the world.
“We call it a robot, but it’s an actual telemedicine cart,” said Debbie Hoffman, Vice President of Patient Services at St. Francis. “We take the cart into the room when the physician needs to see the patient, and the doctor is on the screen.”
Just like a Skype call on a phone or computer, the doctor is able to see and talk to the patient, including being able to zoom the camera in and out. But unlike the average iPhone or PC, there are a few added capabilities too. Doctors can listen to a patient’s lungs, for example, and use other equipment on the cart to better diagnose what’s wrong.
Eagle Telemedicine, an Atlanta-based company, provides the physicians, and also a secure, cloud-based system for them to access patient records in real time. To help build relationships with staff and patients, a small group of doctors is assigned to each hospital in the company’s network, including St. Francis. That means the same doctors will respond night after night.
The program addresses a dire need that isn’t exclusive to St. Francis. Across the country, rural hospitals are in jeopardy, with more than 64 closing their doors since 2013, and hundreds more on the brink, according to a 2017 study by the National Rural Health Association.
That has led many to consider creative alternatives to keep the quality of care high. Alternatives like telemedicine.
“I think it’s really helped our care,” Hoffman said. “The doctors there, they’re ready to go at all times. We just pick up the phone, call them and say ‘hey, we need you to Skype in, we’ve got a patient need.’ And they’re right there.”
It’s an alternative that Hoffman said probably wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago, but is being used more and more by rural hospitals like St. Francis.
“I think small hospitals in rural communities are really looking for a way to expand their services, and this is a way for us to get specialty positions to help us,” Hoffman said. “I think this is a great way of getting physician coverage in our rural, underserved areas.”