by Mercy's Mardi Taylor
As the COVID-19 pandemic surges, so does the need for more virtual care options for patients everywhere. Thanks to a $2.2 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Mercy will expand and upgrade telehealth services for patients across Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
“This grant will help us extend our telehealth care to more people in the communities we serve,” said David Hinkle, executive director of business operations for Mercy’s Virtual Care Center. “When we applied for the grant as part of our response to COVID, we looked at what we did during the first few months of the pandemic and how technology enabled our initial COVID response. We were able to limit bedside exposure because patients could connect to our caregivers from home. We were also able to provide invaluable communication between hospitalized COVID patients and their families. Additional funding will provide more telehealth opportunities across Mercy’s footprint, especially in our rural facilities.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mercy has provided more than 800,000 virtual visits between patients and Mercy Clinic medical providers, a stark increase from the 10,000 Mercy virtual visits in 2019.
Benefits of telehealth also include allowing specialists to connect remotely to support patient care, preserving personal protective equipment for in-patient care and promoting social distancing by serving high-risk and vulnerable populations from their home.
“We had to move very quickly when the pandemic hit,” said Dr. Gavin Helton, president of Mercy Virtual. “Because we had done so much foundational work in the virtual care space, we were able to quickly ramp up and provide care to our communities without the need for patients to leave home. Mercy’s newest virtual offering, COVID Care @ Home, has kept thousands of people out of the hospital and at home where they could be monitored 24/7.”
The $2.2 million grant will provide telemedicine carts and monitors that allow Mercy co-workers to contact offsite caregivers via video conferencing and allow for specialized, remote treatment, especially inside Mercy’s COVID and critical care units.
Mercy’s award totals $2,217,562, and funds will be earmarked for each location based on need. Rural facilities, as well as larger Mercy locations, will also benefit from the funding, which will be distributed to states as follows:
- $793,788 for Mercy in Missouri
- $776,620 for Mercy in Oklahoma
- $647,154 for Mercy in Arkansas
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mercy’s COVID Care @ Home program has enrolled more than 65,000 patients. In addition, virtual care services have allowed Mercy caregivers to recommend the most appropriate level of care for clinically triaged patients. Of those in the program, approximately 800 were referred to a Mercy emergency department for a higher level of care. The remainder of patients were managed either at home or at one of several outpatient settings.
“We’re seeing the future of health care during every virtual visit between patients and providers,” said Dr. David Hunton, president of Mercy Clinic Fort Smith. “Telehealth has proven to be an invaluable tool as we continue to work to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities and communities. It’s also convenient for our patients, allowing them an option to get medical care from the safety of their home. With the push of a button, we’re connecting patients with an expert medical team. This represents part of the future for health care delivery and means more access for more people.”
Previous grants awarded to Mercy (most recently in 2019) include funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help bring virtual care to rural areas served by Mercy.