Behind the scenes of one at the world’s first virtual medical centers

Medical technological advances not only affect the tools doctors use, but also the way they treat their patients. Reporter Jim Kerchherr brings us to one of the world’s first virtual medical centers, a facility that’s putting a new twist on bedside manner.


Medical-technological advances not only affect the tools doctors use, but also the way they treat their patients.

Reporter Jim Kirchherr brings us to one of the world's first virtual medical centers, a facility that's putting a new twist on bedside manner.

In suburban St. Louis there's a brand-new office building.

You wouldn't know from the spacious lobby or from the high-tech workstations, but this is a medical building.

It's a place of doctors and nurses and monitors, but no beds, no exam rooms, no patients -- at least not here.

Around the clock, there are nurses and what's called 'triage software' monitoring patients in intensive-care units in hospitals in five states.

Chuck Belfield popped up one of his empty rooms in Oklahoma.

If a nurse is focusing on one particular patient, and his or her other patient gets bad, I'll get alerts on that, where they may not necessarily get those as quickly as I might.

Smaller hospitals can also be connected to specialists, who are often only found in big cities.

And Mercy's working to expand this network beyond its own hospital system.

But now the real buzz around here is taking this technology from intensive care to just plain healthcare.

Well, if you think about it, there really is no place it can't be.

We started in the intensive-care unit.

That was almost 10 years ago.

But our learnings from there evolved quickly into the hospital, which has now evolved quickly into the home.

A home, say, like this one, in Gerald, Missouri.

It's more than an hour outside St. Louis.

Donald Hayes lives here with his niece.

He was a longtime smoker.

Suffers from COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

He spent a week in the hospital, and now he's almost always hooked up to oxygen.

He's also hooked up to the Mercy Virtual Care Center.

Now I see you.

At 11:00 on most days, he gets a house call from his nurse.

Can you hear me okay?

I sure can. Can you hear me?

I can hear you.

Okay, so, let me pull up our data.

This is not what you were trained to do, I imagine.

Not in the beginning, not at all.

Didn't even imagine something like this would be possible.

All right, so, I've got your weight, 176.4.

This is more than just a 'How are you doing?' call.

Before they connected, the nurse and her computers receive data from his house about his blood pressure, oxygen, heart rate, and weight.

Most people think of this as being telemedicine or television medicine, and it's much broader than that.

It uses the technology of telemedicine, but it also uses the data, integrates the data into the telemedicine process.

It is done synchronously and asynchronously.

So, make a point of getting up, taking a walk every day.

Gerald, Missouri, has a population of about 1,300 people.

It's not on the interstate, and the nearest hospital is in Washington, Missouri.

That's about a 40-minute drive, which isn't so bad unless you're heading to the emergency room.

I don't ever want to see one of them again.

There's times that I might think I need to go to the hospital E.R., and I can get on there, and if there's any problems I need to know, she can answer.

There's usually a doctor right off beside her there.

But Dr. Helton is my main one on this setup.

We've already seen success with multiple hospital admissions, and emergency rooms avoided because we proactively intervened.

Mercy is working to convince health-insurance companies and Medicare to cover this kind of home care, which it argues is a much cheaper ounce of prevention than the pound of cure typically covered at the hospital.

I feel real wheezy.

So, for now Mercy is picking up the tab for Donald Hayes' care, and this is still a pilot program it hopes to scale up.

That will be helpful for you in...

This is a big investment in what Mercy doctors feel is just the beginning.

The fourth floor of the building has an area devoted to ideas, brainstorming, collaboration.

But I think some of our concepts are a little ahead of the technology right now.

It's a future that might see wearable even in planted devices, providing a steady stream of information, not just to set off an alarm for the chronically ill, but possibly to provide something like a 'check engine' light for the healthy.

So, over time, virtual care will actually become standard care.

Continue to work on the low-sodium diet.

My biggest concern is not necessarily the ability of the technology to improve our care that we give.

My biggest fear is that we'll think of ourselves as technologists rather than as caregivers.

We still have to preserve that relationship that's there, and that will be a constant tug and pull and battle.

All right. Take care.

I'll see you tomorrow.

Okay, see you tomorrow.