By Giles Bruce
When patients are admitted to the emergency room at Albuquerque, N.M.-based Lovelace Medical Center, they have their intakes done by nurses who aren't in the same room — or even building.
Virtual nurses pop on TV screens to help complete medication history and allergy forms as well as compliance-based protocols for things like sepsis, freeing up in-person nurses to focus more on actual patient care.
"We see the possibilities for this technology to be far and wide," Marty Bonick, president and CEO of the hospital's parent system, Nashville, Tenn.-based Ardent Health Services, told Becker's. "In terms of our ability to improve quality, improve safety, and prevent falls, infections, pressure ulcers — all of these things can be done when we can have people Zooming in and checking in lots of people, versus the physical foot traffic of just trying to get from room to room to room multiple times a day."
Lovelace eventually plans to institute virtual attending nurses and expand the program to other departments, while Ardent intends to bring the technology next to its hospitals in Idaho and Tyler, Texas. The in-room cameras also have the capability to do ambient monitoring and listening that could be used to detect and prevent falls. Ardent has 30 hospitals across six states.
Virtual nurses have seen about 6,000 Lovelace patients since the program kicked off in December, with tech company Care.ai, cutting the intake time by roughly half, to 4 1/2 minutes.
Lovelace has also extended employment to off-site virtual nurses, including ones who work from home. That enables nurses with injuries or close to retirement to continue working.
It was the idea of Lovelace's chief nursing officer to launch the initiative in the ER, Mr. Bonick said. "When you introduce innovation, you've got to have people that are willing to pull that innovation in versus having it pushed upon them," he said. "The ER is considered our front door to the hospital, and if we can show we can make this work in a contained environment that has high patient turnover and velocity, then we can expand it into the med-surg environment where things are a little bit more spread out from a time horizon."
He said as the program has progressed staffers have seen it as a help and not a hindrance or threat to their jobs. "I will be clear: This is not about reducing our nurses at their bedside. This is not about eliminating nurses or some productivity hack," he said. Rather, it's about giving them "an extra pair of hands to do some of those more rote or routine things that are necessary, but not necessarily advancing patient care in the moment."
Virtual nursing is just part of Ardent's strategy to compete with retail and Big Tech disruptors in healthcare. Other partnerships include a patient scheduling and engagement platform with tech company Loyal Health, a continuous monitoring patch from BioIntelliSense, remote care with Cadence, and a venture studio with investment firm SwitchPoint Ventures that has helped develop physician recruiting and staffing scheduling technologies with startups Polaris and Winnow.
"With Amazon and CVS and Walgreens and Optum, and all these new entrants coming into the traditional healthcare sector, they all have one thing in common: They're all trying to employ physicians to get closer to the patient, to the consumer," Mr. Bonick said. "Health systems already have doctors."
"The way I look at these new threats is: Hey, this is ours to lose. And we're not going to lose, because we have the ability to care for the patient beyond a retail pharmacy, beyond an online platform, beyond an insurance company. Most people need services beyond just a doctor visit or an online virtual visit," he said. "So I'm pretty bullish on the future, if we can get out of our own way and not think of ourselves as hospital companies but really true healthcare services organizations focused on the consumer. So that's our driving force and that informs our innovation strategy."