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It's gone 'shockingly well': America's hospitals have embraced remote technology amid COVID-19

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor
·6 mins read

Dan Bisset was in a medically induced coma and on life support. The 48-year-old’s blood was being artificially oxygenated via a specialized machine, as he continued to battle the novel coronavirus, which kept him in strict isolation.

Unable to let his family members into the unit, personnel in the cardiac intensive care unit at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, P.A., provided Bisset’s sister, Lisa Harvey, with an iPad, allowing her and Bisset’s wife, Shannon, to FaceTime him.

“Even though my brother was still in the medically induced coma, the nurses and the doctors would take the iPad and position it for us to be able to see my brother, to be bedside by my brother,” said Harvey, who was able to communicate with him as his condition improved.

A similar scenario is playing out in hospitals across the country, with tech companies like Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) working in tandem with healthcare systems to ensure COVID-19 patients can stay in touch with their family, and helping protect healthcare workers from being unnecessarily exposed to infected individuals.

Lisa Harvey looks on as her brother Dan Bisset is wheeled out of the hospital after overcoming COVID-19, which forced doctors to put him in a medically-induced coma. (Image: Geisinger Health)
Lisa Harvey looks on as her brother Dan Bisset is wheeled out of the hospital after overcoming COVID-19, which forced doctors to put him in a medically-induced coma. (Image: Geisinger Health)

“It’s gone well, I mean shockingly well,” Dr. Chris Kapsner, medical director at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, told Yahoo Finance.

Abbott Northwestern is among those hospitals using Microsoft’s Teams to let doctors remotely speak with patients in order to limit their exposure to the virus. According to the tech giant, healthcare providers have conducted more than 34 million meetings via the service in the past month. The company was unable to provide prior usage statistics for medical settings, as this is the first time it has released such metrics.

“My initial concern was that the providers wouldn’t like it, the patients wouldn’t like it, and the nurses wouldn’t like it. But I’d have to say, uniformly, everyone understands that this is an important tool,” Kapsner said. “It’s by no means perfect, but it has been an important tool to allow us to efficiently and safely see patients.”

Protecting providers and patients

Under normal circumstances, doctors and nurses freely move in and out of patient rooms to perform evaluations and consultations. But when dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, each additional person in a room with infected patients could become one more person who contracts the virus.

To address that, Kapsner said that nurses and primary doctors who need to physically be in a room with a patient will still do so, but specialists and consulting physicians will remain outside, communicating with the primary doctor or nurse via Teams.

Minnesota’s Allina Health has similarly deployed Microsoft’s Teams to limit caregivers’ exposure to COVID patients. According to Tom Bethke, VP of IS Infrastructure at Allina Health, the system went from having no tablets or chat service in January, to tablets in all of its metro hospitals in just three to four months.

Allina Health's army of tablets allow healthcare providers to remotely speak with coronavirus patients, limiting their risk of exposure to the virus. (Image: Allina Health)
Allina Health's army of tablets allow healthcare providers to remotely speak with coronavirus patients, limiting their risk of exposure to the virus. (Image: Allina Health)

Inside of each patient room is a tablet that doctors and specialists can connect to remotely, Bethke explained, limiting the number of people who have to actually enter the area.

Google has teamed with Mount Sinai in New York to install two of the company’s Nest cameras in more than 100 COVID-19 rooms to allow caregivers to remotely monitor virus patients.

At Geisinger Health Systems, Dr. Jonathan Slotkin says thousands of iPads have been deployed to let doctors communicate with patients and to patients see their family members via video chats.

One of the system’s first COVID patients, Slotkin explained, started receiving treatment in an intensive care unit that had yet to be converted into a dedicated COVID unit. Care providers set up a negative pressure room for the patient, but because of his infection, he was unable to have family in the room with him.

Slotkin, however, said the family was still able to chat using the hospital-provided iPad. And as the COVID unit grew, and the patient’s family had to keep a greater distance from him, they continued to chat remotely.

As the number of COVID patients swelled in the hospital system, and patients were moved into rooms that weren’t set up with remote monitoring technology already, Slotkin said care providers were able to bring in iPads to perform some basic monitoring capabilities.

Google is bringing cameras to hospital in New York's Mount Sinai hospitals to allow healthcare providers to remotely monitor COVID-19 patients. (Image: Mount Sinai)
Google is bringing cameras New York's Mount Sinai hospitals to allow healthcare providers to remotely monitor COVID-19 patients. (Image: Mount Sinai)

“We’ve had for a long time, an [electronic intensive care unit] environment, and those types of environments...often require significant hardwiring, hardware infrastructure,” Slotkin explained.

“And as these areas have expanded, or we’ve taken areas that weren’t designed for these purposes and made them units where we had patients with COVID, iPad has allowed us to really nimbly and rapidly deploy devices into those areas to bring some of this important functionality.”

Keeping chronic patients connected at home

At Stony Brook University Hospital, Gerald Kelly, interim chief information officer, has helped oversee the deployment of both Apple’s iPads and Microsoft’s Teams to ensure patients with chronic conditions can continue to see their regular healthcare providers.

With ambulatory offices closed at the hospital, Kelly said the solution to providing treatment to patients with conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other issues was to connect them to their physicians via the Teams app.

It was a heavy lift for the hospital, which had to not only set up the technology on its end, but also educate patients as to how to use it from their homes so that they could remotely chat with their providers. But it clearly worked for the hospital, which has had more than 26,000 remote visits to date.

One of those patients includes Stony Brook University associate professor Brooke Ellison. Elisson, who lives with paraplegia, says the university is able to remotely monitor her vitals including her temperature, blood pressure, and blood glucose.

With COVID-19 hitting the New York area especially hard, Ellison was unable to go to the hospital itself for her regular treatments. But with the Teams system that the hospital set up, she said she was able to continue with her regimen without issue.

Going forward, the use of telemedicine and video chat programs for infectious or immunocompromised individuals is likely to continue to accelerate, leading to a new normal for healthcare providers and patients alike.

For Harvey and her family, that’s just what they’d like to see.

“I would encourage hospitals to have these devices available,” Harvey said, “because otherwise you’re completely shut out.”

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at danielphowley@protonmail.com or dhowley@yahoofinance.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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