When you’re managing multiple health conditions, life is complicated. When you live alone after the death of a loved one, it can be scary.
That was Mark Heady’s predicament. The 61-year-old has congestive heart failure, pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure affecting the lungs), multiple sclerosis and issues with balance. He found himself alone in his rural Buffalo, Missouri, home, trying to manage as best he could.
“I was showing up more often to my doctor’s office than my regularly-scheduled three or four-month appointments,” Heady said. “When I did go to the doctor, I went 30 miles away to Springfield.”
The team at Mercy Virtual identified Heady as a patient who may benefit from a relatively new Mercy program called Engagement@Home. It brings health care providers to the patient’s home, virtually, through a secure internet connection, a tablet, and wireless monitoring equipment.
“Because of Mark’s multiple and complicated medical conditions – and the fact that he lives alone - I thought it would be good for us to keep a closer “medical eye” on him,” explained Dr. Patrick Dopp, who’s been Heady’s family doctor for decades.
The package arrived with everything Heady needed to get started, but he wasn’t sold yet on all this unfamiliar technology. “Like other older people, I tended to reject computers as a nuisance,” he said. “I’m not technology savvy. But it was really easy to use, and I soon learned I could use the tablet to search for all kinds of health information!”
Heady starts each day by taking his weight, pulse, oxygen levels and blood pressure on devices that link to the tablet. Those readings then alert the Mercy Virtual team to sudden changes so they can reach out to Heady and see what’s happening. They might tweak his medication or make simple suggestions, like drinking more water or resting for a bit. He also has twice-a-week appointments with a Mercy Virtual caregiver, and can always call them for help.
“It’s a two-way street,” he explained. “They can let me know if something looks wrong and I can hit a button and let them know if I don’t feel well. I’m basically in touch with the health care system all the time. Also, the feedback they give me helps me make immediate changes myself. I can see the results.”
Other patients are seeing results as well. Since launching as a pilot program in Washington, Missouri, in summer 2016, Mercy expanded Engagement@Home to include the Springfield area. Now, 200 patients in the Ozarks are equipped with this technology at home.
“Mercy’s Virtual Care Center, in collaboration with the traditional care team, has decreased unnecessary hospitalization and emergency room visits by 50 percent,” said Dr. Gavin Helton, Mercy Virtual’s medical director of ambulatory medicine. “That’s a huge improvement in these patients’ quality of life. It means they’re feeling better and doing more of what they want.”
Dr. Dopp gets constant updates on Heady’s status and any changes through Mercy’s electronic health record. He couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s seeing. “I’ve been his physician for the past 20 years, and he is doing the best he ever has in regards to both his physical and mental health,” Dr. Dopp said. “I think the social aspect along with the medical care makes all the difference in the world. Mercy Virtual is emotionally uplifting because patients know they’re not alone.”
Heady agrees. “It’s very holistic. There’s even a social worker available and we’ve been working on how isolating it is living out here. I’ve gotten new ideas for things I can try –like singing in the church choir.”
Engagement@Home isn’t for every patient. It’s targeted to those with multiple chronic conditions who are repeatedly in and out of the emergency room and hospital. The Mercy Virtual team works with primary care doctors to identify patients who might benefit.
“I can’t believe I was rejecting this technology stuff like crazy,” Heady said. “And now I’ve found it’s my lifeline.”
Mercy Virtual delivers virtual care services to 600,000 patients across seven states (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina), improving patient outcomes and access, while reducing total cost of care. Often called a “hospital without beds,” Mercy Virtual Care Center operates 24 hours a day and is staffed with more than 300 clinicians.
Mercy, named one of the top five large U.S. health systems in 2017 by Truven, an IBM Watson Health company, serves millions annually. Mercy includes 44 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 and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.