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Mercy health system launches virtual visits for rural patients

Cardiologist Dr. Paul Freiman can now visit with Mercy patients virtually.

Cardiologist Dr. Paul Freiman can now visit with Mercy patients virtually.

Cardiologist Dr. Paul Freiman can now visit with Mercy patients virtually.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Mo. — For years, heart problems have brought Donald Smith face to face with his Mercy cardiologist. During his recent visit, however, the doctor never set foot in Donald’s exam room.

“Oh, he was definitely there,” said the 74-year-old from Willow Springs, Missouri. “I sat there, looking at him and he was looking at me, talking just like he would if he were in the room with me. It was just like any other visit I’ve had – but virtual.”

Smith made the same short, familiar drive to Mercy St. Francis Hospital for his regular visit with Dr. Paul Freiman. This time, it was through a one-on-one video connection, powered by Mercy Virtual.

“It’s very much like the real thing,” said Dr. Freiman. “Instead of one stethoscope, we’re using two – Donald’s nurse in Mountain View is holding one and the other is in my hands, in Springfield. I’m able to get precise readings on breathing, heartbeat and more.”

“At first, it was strange to think that he was listening to my heart, lungs and everything,” Smith said. “He’s about 100 miles away. It’s just unbelievable.”

Bluetooth technology allows for a secure video and audio connection between the two electronic stethoscopes. Data is simultaneously uploaded into Mercy’s electronic health records.

“I can do everything in real time – review old charts, records, lab work and test results,” Dr. Freiman said. “That data is then easier to access during Donald’s next visit, saving him valuable time. In turn, I’m able to see more patients during the work day. It’s a win-win.”

The virtual visits, launched this spring, are already saving patients from traveling hundreds of miles to see a specialist for chronic cardiac diagnoses like heart disease and heart failure.

Mercy, named one of the top five large U.S. health systems in 2016 by Truven, an IBM company, serves millions annually. Mercy includes 45 acute care and specialty (heart, children’s, orthopedic and rehab) hospitals, more than 700 physician practices and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri andOklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

In Smith’s case, it’s COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

“It makes me very susceptible to pneumonia, so I need to meet with the doctor a lot to make sure my medicines and care plan are up to speed,” Smith said. “And I really don’t like to drive a long ways. Mercy has made things a whole lot easier.”

Primary care doctors or hospitalists must make the referral for Mercy Virtual. At the moment, Dr. Freiman is offering virtual visits with cardiac patients once a month, but plans to expand on that.

“Patients absolutely love it,” said Dr. Martha Colville, hospitalist at Mercy St. Francis Hospital. “We’re thrilled with any opportunity to provide excellent specialty care and better access.”

In addition to telecardiology, Mercy St. Francis Hospital is also synced up with Mercy’s Virtual Care Center, the only center of its kind, in St. Louis, Missouri. Doctors hundreds of miles away are able to provide an extra set of eyes to the medical surgical department in Mountain View.

“And we’re just getting started,” said Dr. Randy Moore, president of Mercy Virtual. “In today’s world, a cardiologist might only be available in a community once a month, and traveling can take up valuable time. With virtual care, our goal is to get patients the care they need right away – any day of the month.”