Telemedicine programs may seem revolutionary. The concept of a physician “beaming” into a hospital room may seem like Star Trek Healthcare. You may wonder at the efficacy, when the physician is a face on a TV monitor.
Truth is, telemedicine programs are proven effective in medical care — with highly skilled medical TeleSpecialists, advanced audio/video/sensory technology, plus well-trained on-site teamwork.
The concept of telehealth was first proposed 100 years ago. Fast-forward to the 1960s, with the first attempts in putting concept into practice. In 2008, Eagle Telemedicine launched its pioneering hospitalist approach to telemedicine. In 2020, telemedicine is a proven approach to delivering medicine and clinical care — covering 13 medical specialties.
Eagle Telemedicine’s story is a case study illustrating a simple mission — to improve access to healthcare for millions of Americans. And yet, myths persist about telemedicine as a viable practice in medicine. Let’s address these myths, and explain the facts. You’ll see just how effective telemedicine is in delivering the highest quality medical care.
Telemedicine Programs: Facts vs Fiction
#1 Telemedicine is too new – FICTION
The concept of telehealth dates back to 1920, with successful applications in the 1960s, 1990s, and in 2008 Eagle Telemedicine first offered TeleSpecialist services. Since then, 85% of hospitals have adopted telemedicine. Eagle provides TeleSpecialists in 13 medical specialties.
#2 Inpatient telemedicine is only for rural hospitals – FICTION
Access to specialty care is an extremely important aspect of the overall care delivery system. This need is not limited to rural regions. Research shows that urban and suburban hospitals and hospitals are actually adopting telemedicine services at the same pace, or even faster than rural hospitals.
#3 You can’t perform a thorough patient examine using telemedicine – FICTION
Eagle’s virtual physical exam is comprehensive; Eagle TeleSpecialists develop trusting relationships with on-site nurses and medical assistants who serve as the “hands” in this exam.
At bedside, the TeleSpecialist sees and communicates with the patient. Using the zoom feature, the TeleSpecialist can focus on eyes, ears, nose. All bedside monitors are visible showing vital signs. An on-site nurse will assist with e-stethoscope, facilitating cardiac, abdominal and back/spine palpate, and musculoskeletal exam. TeleSpecialist also performs neurological exams, as needed. Eagle trains on-site team members in e-stethoscope use.
#4 Telemedicine providers can’t perform procedures – FACT
It’s true; a remote provider can’t physically touch a patient. Robotic surgical technology is Not/Applicable to telemedicine. However, a TeleSpecialist can guide specific procedures (e.g., intubation), and prepare patients for surgery/transfer. A TeleSpecialist can diagnose and guide treatment for Atrial Fibrillation, Sepsis, and other serious conditions.
#5 You can’t manage a Code Blue using telemedicine – FICTION
Eagle TeleSpecialists effectively command CODE BLUE and Rapid Response calls. The TeleSpecialist calls out orders to each team member. TeleSpecialist monitors all patient biometrics. Eagle trains on-site Code Blue teams, as needed. Eagle TeleSpecialists take great pride in their Code Blue record.
#1 Telemedicine is too new – FICTION
A 100-year history
At present, telemedicine programs provide inpatient technology-enabled care in 207 hospitals across 23 states. Eagle Telemedicine is proud to be a physician-led, professionally managed organization. We have some great clinical partners — physicians all over the world — helping to steward our way forward in this space.
#2 Inpatient telemedicine is only for rural hospitals – FICTION
Some may say “Inpatient telemedicine is only for rural hospitals. It’s not for those big urban centers, especially not teaching institutions. It’s a service borne out of necessity.” There are falsehoods buried in that claim. Here’s the truth:
TRUTH: Access to specialty care is an extremely important aspect of the overall care delivery system.
TRUTH: This need is not limited to rural regions. Research shows that urban and suburban hospitals and hospitals are actually adopting telemedicine services at the same pace, or even faster than rural hospitals.
Urban centers want to increase support and access to specific specialties, with time-sensitive care delivery. In rural settings, the predominant need is for emergency room, internal medicine, and nocturnist coverage. This elevates the care for patients who require night-time emergency admission close to home.
- By 2014, 32% of urban hospitals were using telemedicine services
- More likely to have multiple departments using telemedicine
- Departments most likely to use telemedicine:
- By 2014, 34% of rural hospitals were using telemedicine services.
- Emergency Department was the most common telemedicine implementation
Myth #3 You can’t perform a thorough patient examine with telemedicine – FICTION
This is a common misconception. If the physician is virtual, how is a physical exam possible? To understand, let’s wrap our minds around this concept. Keep in mind, it works every day, with every patient, in every hospital that Eagle services.
Certainly, we all agree that the physical exam is an important part of the patient’s clinical picture. The exam will confirm or reprove a patient’s diagnosis.
Eagle’s virtual physical exam allows us to develop a relationship with the nurse or medical assistant who is on-site with the patient. The e-stethoscope technology provides excellent audio amplification and quality of sound. A small murmur can be amplified with impeccable clarity.
Telemedicine has an advantage over a typical physical exam, as the physician has a broader view of the patient’s room and all elements.
Protocols for Telemedicine Patient Exam
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Oxygen level
Head & Neck
- Eyes, Ears, Nose, etc
- Cardiac & Pulmonary (e-Stethoscope)
On-Site Nurse Performs:
- Neck & Gland Palpate
- Abdominal Palpate
- Back/Spine Palpate
Physical exam: At bedside, the TeleSpecialist sees and communicates with the patient. Using the zoom feature, the TeleSpecialist can focus on eyes, ears, nose. All bedside monitors are visible showing vital signs. An on-site nurse will assist with e-stethoscope, facilitating cardiac, abdominal and back/spine palpate, and musculoskeletal exam. TeleSpecialist will also perform a neurological exam, as needed.
Palpating the abdomen: Eagle’s high-tech blue-tooth stethoscope serves as a form of palpation when applied correctly, and will correlate with the patient’s self-reported symptoms, like tenderness. The on-site RN receives training in utilizing the e-stethoscope and will supplement by performing a deeper palpation exam. The TeleSpecialist can confirm the exam with the Emergency physician.
Neurological Exam: While the TeleNeurologist closely monitors the face, the patient responds by raising their eyebrows, puffing out their cheeks, giving a big smile, as we look for facial symmetry, cranial nerve deficits, etc.
The on-site nurse assists with shoulder resistance, upper and lower extremity resistance; this will be confirmed with the ER physician’s examination.
The TeleNeurologist may also assess short-term memory recall, by holding up a picture or an object; the patient’s response shows comprehension level.
A complete assessment: The physical examination is very complete, assessing heart, lungs, abdomen, neuro, and skin (via special attachments); the cart may also have an otoscope or an ophthalmoscope attachment.
Telemedicine facilitates a high level of multidisciplinary care. All telespecialists and on-site caregivers are focused on delivering optimal care. On-site nurses work at a high level of competency, and receive advanced training in virtual diagnoses. This collaboration results in best practices in medical care.
#4 Telemedicine programs and their providers can’t perform procedures – FACT
It’s true. A remote provider can’t reach out and physically touch a patient. Robotic surgical procedures now being performed in hospitals are not applicable to telemedicine.
FACT: Eagle takes a multidisciplinary approach in assessing and preparing the patient for transfer or for surgery — which is achieved in a very timely manner. The on-site healthcare providers become the TeleSpecialist’s hands.
While an Eagle TeleSpecialist might not be physically present, they have the skills to make non-physical connections occur rapidly and effectively.
EXAMPLE: In an urgent situation, when a patient is experiencing respiratory arrest (breathing has stopped), our TeleSpecialist will call the ER physician: “Hey, this has been going on, this patient’s working really hard to breathe, their blood gas shows acidosis, they’re hypoxic, they’re hypercarbon, we’ve had them on bypass or they’re not a bypass candidate for this and that reason, I feel they need to be intubated, here’s the imaging result…”
The Eagle TeleSpecialist sees the patient’s imaging and the chart. They see the patient, and the patient sees them. The Emergency physician or another team member is in the room. This cohesive team works very efficiently and effectively in providing patient care.
With all the data available to the TeleSpecialist, the best decisions can be made. Having developed a trusting relationship with on-site providers, including the ER physician and anesthesiologist, the team can move very quickly to next steps.
EXAMPLE: A COVID-19-infected patient had an urgent finding in their chest x-ray. It was pretty rare, so the TeleSpecialist pulled up the EMR — with the patient also on the screen. The TeleSpecialist examined the chest x-ray, the lab results, and notes from admission. This confirmed the new finding, at 2 a.m. in a rural Oregon hospital.
The TeleSpecialist called the hospital supervisor, alerted them that intubation and transfer were necessary. This patient had to be airlifted to another hospital, with a local certified anesthesiologist with them.
The hospital’s on-site respiratory therapist performed the intubation; a radiology technician was also present. The TeleSpecialist could confirm the tube was in the correct position (via real-time x-ray). The respiratory therapist prepared the blood gas within a few minutes.
The TeleSpecialist assessed oxygenation and ventilation on that patient. Adjustments were made to the ventilator and updates were provided to the tertiary hospital: “Hey. We’ve intubated this patient; it’ll be two hours until they get there; this is the blood gas; they’re sedated and ready for you.”
This is a perfect example of care coordination, bringing together all information and healthcare teams to perform effectively in providing patient care.
Atrial Fibrillation: This is a common call for the hospitalist and in telemedicine we see it fairly commonly across the nation. This can be managed easily by an experienced hospitalist or experienced physician, checking the EKG and ordering the medication.
The TeleSpecialist needs to see the patient. The robot cart is pulled into the room. The patient’s rhythm is visible on the heart monitor; the TeleSpecialist can confirm it with the EKG, check oxygenation, and ask, “Hey, are you having any chest pain? Are you having any symptoms?” Just that brief interview allows the TeleSpecialist to assess encephalopathy or pulmonary edema, if there’s chest pain.
The bluetooth stethoscope allows the TeleSpecialist to listen for crackles and diminished heart sounds while waiting on further imaging (chest x-ray) that’s been ordered. This can be assessed in the room via the radiology monitor.
If SVT is present, the team can administer a different therapy other than a beta blocker or a calcium channel blocker. With an SVT, they would administer adenosine. If there’s a cardioversion required for a shock-like state, and the patient is a candidate for cardioversion, the TeleSpecialist can facilitate that with the Emergency physician.
Coordinated Team Effort: This case illustrates how a TeleSpecialist can coordinate with the on-site team to have all components in place for patient care. The appropriate labs and tests ordered and assessed, and results available on the EMR. The patient is within view, and all monitors are visible.
When appropriate on-site team members are assembled, and all test results are in the EMR, the TeleSpecialist can lead the patient care. The TeleSpecialist is indeed in the patient room, providing clear guidance to each team member to carry out procedures, as needed. There is continuity in the process, and optimal patient care is delivered.
Code Sepsis: A TeleSpecialist can also handle Code Sepsis. The on-site physician will assess the patient, review their chart, look for a sepsis order, and update the sepsis score. At that point, they contact the TeleSpecialist to alert them about this condition. With the COVID-19 pandemic, our telemedicine programs have encountered an uptick in sepsis cases.
If the sepsis order is in place, that quality metric has been established. If the order is not in place, and the patient meets sepsis criteria, the Eagle TeleSpecialist must enter the sepsis order set.
The protocol: The Eagle Hospitalist will perform a detailed review of the chart, ensuring antibiotics and fluids. We will reassess the six-hour bundle for reperfusion. We will ensure the patient has met those quality metrics. We will follow up with the nurse: “Hey. What’s going on? Do you see a huge clinical difference?”
If the nurse advises, the TeleSpecialist will see the patient at the bedside, assessing the patient. The TeleSpecialist can examine their skin, identify changes in lower extremities, assess perfusion by asking the nurse to touch the patient’s fingertips. The TeleSpecialist will check capillaries, medications, both cardiac and lung exams to assess need for further images, testing, antibiotics.
Overview of Responsibilities: TeleSpecialist & On-Site Provider
INTUBATION: Tele-ICU & TeleSpecialist work with onsite staff to:
- Intubate a patient by coordinating with an Emergency Department physician or anesthesiologist.
- Set and manage ventilator settings with the support of IC nurses
ATRIAL FIBRILLATION: Telemedicine physicians work with onsite staff to:
- Telemedicine providers detect A-fib by listening to the patient’s heart or by electronically monitoring the patient’s pulse
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) or echocardiogram are accessible via secure transmission to the telemedicine physician, which allows the virtual provider to identify any signs of A-fib
- TeleSpecialists receive real-time data about the patient’s vital signs, lab tests and radiographic findings. Video and audio capabilities during a patient consult allow the TeleSpecialist to “beam in,” examine and communicate with the patient.
- Requests for further patient analysis via seroradiographic testing are sent directly from the TeleSpecialist to the hospital’s EMR. Once diagnosed, the TeleSpecialist can order antibiotics, intravenous fluids, transfer to the ICU, or order any appropriate treatment using the same process.
#5 You can’t manage a Code Blue using telemedicine – FICTION
We’re very proud of our Code Blue record. As we all know, a Code Blue can be tragic. But every time we’re called, our TeleSpecialists have effectively managed Code Blue working with the on-site team. This is typically a night shift call, when the hospital has limited resources. Our TeleSpecialists effectively take charge of the situation and deliver effective rapid-response patient care.
Every hospital has a Code Blue response protocol in place. The team leader is not always a physician. In other cases, the TeleSpecialist team is called to be the primary leader or the Code Runner.
On-Site: When a Code Blue is Announced
Eagle Telemedicine programs have a specific protocol for notifying team members. In the hospital, the announcement is announced in the public address system.
The nearest nurses will initiate the first resuscitation efforts. The TeleSpecialist or intensivists will beam onto a cart. In some cases, the TeleSpecialist appears before the cart gets into the room. A flash will appear on hospital walls and doors as the cart/TeleSpecialist is rushed down the hallway and pushed into a room.
When the TeleSpecialist arrives at the Code scene, an emergency physician is often present. In other cases, there may be another hospital staff member. The TeleSpecialist will relieve them of their duty, expressing confidence in handling the situation. As needed, we will ask an Emergency physician to assist with an intubation or a line.
At the Patient’s Bedside
- Patient’s left foot: The TeleSpecialist is at the patient’s left foot, where the Code Blue leader would stand. The TeleSpecialist watches both the remote and bedside heart monitors to assess patient’s heart rhythm.
- The TeleSpecialist calls out the orders to each team member. Teamwork is delivering care; the TeleSpecialist is leading the Code.
- On the left side: Two carotid checkers. The medication pusher. The CPR thumper. Team member to document the events/process.
- On the right side: Two carotid pulse checkers; they will administer CPR, putting hands on the carotid pulse to advise of pulse presence.
- At the patient’s head: The anesthesiologist or respiratory therapist. Ready for bag masking, placing an endotracheal tube, and assessing capnography.
That’s how a TeleSpecialist runs a Code Blue. They follow ACLS protocol, making sure to follow standards for high-quality CPR, with or without the CPR thumper.
Best Practices for Code Management
Managing a Code requires optimal placement of resources within a room. As we work with hospitals to implement programs, we spend considerable time on specific workflows — ensuring everybody understands their role in certain situations and events.
It’s extremely important to have the utmost clarity on roles in these situations. We run mock Codes to ensure this — and to familiarize each team member with Code management. We debrief afterwards – what worked, what didn’t work. We make changes and we run again. We practice for a reason, because we want zero mistakes.
After the care is ultimately directed and performed, the TeleSpecialist will facilitate the appropriate documentation in the EMR. Indeed, the TeleSpecialist/telemedicine can effectively manage and deliver care for Code Blues and Rapid Responses — and do so with the highest quality outcomes.