How a Texas health system spun up a virtual ICU – just in time for COVID-19

For several years, Houston Methodist had been planning to spin up a virtual intensive care unit as a way to provide support for community hospitals and widen access to care.

“We had chosen the technology, the cameras were hung, and we had signed contracts for our physicians to work,” explained Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at the health system.

The team used Caregility for their cameras, and Medical Informatics Corp.’s Sickbay platform for their artificial intelligence tools. Their intensivists were employed through Equum Medical.

In February 2020, the team hung the final camera on the main campus.

“Our first COVID-19 patient arrived in March,” she said.

The team hit the gas pedal, said Schwartz, who is scheduled to present about the experience at HIMSS22 in Orlando in March.

“As you can imagine, we sped up the implementation and rolled out all our beds at once, rather than waiting for a staged roll-out,” she said.

“We added the community hospitals as we could get carts and then, eventually, we added their cameras,” she said.

The model allowed the health system to care for the increased volumes of critically ill patients.

Schwartz noted that the project involves “countless” change management pieces.

“From hiring nurses and contracting physicians, to deciding where buttons go, to deciding when and who should be called on what type of issues – there are so many workflows that need to be identified,” said Schwartz, who also spoke to Healthcare IT News earlier this year about the system’s conversational AI technology.

“Then, after they are in, nothing is perfect,” she said.

However, she continued, “It is the work that everyone does each day and each night – particularly around identified issues – that makes us better.”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to hit hospitals hard, leading to both enduring and novel challenges.

Schwartz says she hopes HIMSS22 panel attendees learn from her session that the process of implementing a Virtual ICU is a journey.

“And, as soon as you get to your first destination, you need to plan the next one,” she said.

“I am so proud of how far we have come, and recognize how far we still have left on the journey,” she added.

Schwartz will explain more in her HIMSS22 session, “Enabling Virtual Care and AI at Scale.” It’s scheduled for Tuesday, March 15, from 10:30-11:30 a.m., in Orange County Convention Center W230A.

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