Health system is exploring applications beyond COVID-19 to provide care at home.
Long before COVID-19 hit American shores, health systems began launching remote monitoring programs, particularly to manage chronic diseases. Hospital at home initiatives, or virtual hospitals, are a robust manifestation of this endeavor. While these models have demonstrated cost savings, adoption has been slow due to reimbursement issues.
The pandemic offered a trifecta of motivating factors to accelerate adoption of the virtual hospital model: bed capacity issues, a need to limit staff and patient exposure, and dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
With these issues in mind, during March 2020 a handful of clinicians approached Atrium Health administrators, suggesting that the 42-hospital Charlotte, North Carolina–based nonprofit health system consider launching a hospital at home initiative. Two weeks later it was operational, says Scott Rissmiller, MD, executive vice president and chief physician executive.
In the first 10 months, the virtual hospital admitted 51,000 patients. "We are able to keep patients in their homes, protect our teammates from infection, and also protect patients," Rissmiller says. "It freed up a good bit of capacity in our acute facility," enabling the health system to reserve that space for its more acute COVID-19 patients.
How the Virtual Hospital Operates
The virtual hospital maintains two "floors." The first floor functions as an observation unit; the second floor is reserved for patients requiring more intensive care, says Rissmiller.
Any COVID-19-positive patient is admitted to the first floor of the virtual hospital and receives digital tools to monitor temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and oxygen levels. These devices deliver data via Bluetooth® to a smartphone app developed by the health system's IT department. That data feeds into the patient's EMR, fully integrating into the patient's continuum of care, Rissmiller explains. In a bunker back at Atrium Health's call center, a team of clinicians monitors data and checks in with first-floor patients daily.
Second-floor virtual patients have the same home monitoring tools, but receive "much more intensive management" and frequent check-ins, he says. In addition, community-based paramedics visit homes to administer IV fluids, IV antibiotics, breathing treatments, EKGs, and other interventions.
This arrangement created additional opportunities to reduce hospital bed capacity. "We were one of the first in the nation to get in-home remdesivir, one of the COVID treatments," says Rissmiller. "To receive remdesivir, you have to be on oxygen therapy, so these patients are sick." In a 10-month period, Atrium Health administered about 150 therapeutic rounds of the drug, he says, which saved about 500 hospital days that would have been required if those patients had been hospitalized.
"From a quality standpoint, we do not view this any differently than if these patients were within the walls of our hospital," says Rissmiller. All measures, including length of stay as well as readmission, transfer, and mortality rates, have been almost identical to inpatient stats, and patient satisfaction has been "extremely high," he says. "Patients really would rather be in their home surrounded by their loved ones and support system."
A 'Costly Endeavor'
The hospital at home initiative has been a "costly endeavor," says Rissmiller. "When we realized this pandemic was going to be significant, our CEO [and President Eugene Woods, MBA, MHA, FACHE] called me and said, 'Scott, whatever you need to care for our patients and communities—do it. We'll figure out the costs later.' It freed us up to be able to do things like this."
As it turned out, costs have been offset by funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which enable Atrium Health to bill for many of the services provided. The organization also is one of a handful of healthcare systems that are doing a pilot with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which views virtual beds as real hospital beds. "The reimbursement is similar because of the level of service we're providing," says Rissmiller. Initially, though, "it was all upfront costs for us, but the return was in bed days."
A focus on reimbursement continues "as we are now maturing the program," he says. "Our concern is that the reimbursement will go away once those [pandemic] emergency orders expire. We're working with the state, our payers, Medicare, and others to make sure that this continues to be reimbursed at a level that allows us to continue to grow it and cover our costs."
"Out of necessity, COVID ultimately accelerated health systems' desire to think through their digital strategies and determine how digital fits into their overall care and business models," says Brian Kalis, MBA, managing director of digital health and innovation in consulting firm Accenture's health practice. "New models are starting to pop up, and care is shifting to the home."
Strategic goals include producing outcomes that equal or exceed inpatient care, while also improving labor productivity, Kalis says. "A majority of health systems coming out of COVID are putting care at home as a key strategic focus. That requires a collection of new models to deliver care, putting different care team compositions in place, and [utilizing] technology to help a broad range of conditions for pre-acute, acute, and post-acute care."
Virtual Hospital Care Beyond COVID-19
Atrium's virtual hospital has already expanded beyond COVID-19 patients. Once the surge diminished in July, Rissmiller "challenged the team to look at [the initiative] through the lens of a non-COVID world. Can this become a new way of caring for patients that makes sense to the patient and to us as a healthcare system?" There is now a list of 10 diagnoses to be considered for hospital at home care, and congestive heart failure patients have already been admitted into the virtual facility.
"We're starting to branch out," he says. "We're also starting to focus on different communities to make sure that we're doing this in a way that helps with our underserved populations and gives them the resources they need to manage care at home rather than coming through the emergency department."
While Atrium Health rolled out its program in two weeks, Rissmiller says, "this is something that would be incredibly hard to start up on your own if you hadn't had the 10 years of virtual experience that we've had building these capabilities, but also the confidence to be able to deliver these kinds of services at home. It takes a while for clinicians to understand that care can be delivered safely virtually. We also have a culture at Atrium Health that really enables our clinical leaders to lead and their voices to be heard. That, more than anything, is the secret sauce that's allowed for innovations like hospital at home."
“From a quality standpoint, we do not view this any differently than if these patients were within the walls of our hospital.”
Scott Rissmiller, MD, executive vice president and chief physician executive, Atrium Health
Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.
A virtual hospital can increase bed capacity, limit staff and patient exposure to COVID-19, and conserve PPE.
Remote monitoring can reduce costs and support the transition to value-based care.
Such initiatives hold the potential to improve patient satisfaction and experience.