Catholic healthcare system Mercy opened a virtual care center last week in Chesterfield, Mo., where it is headquartered.
The $54 million center uses only telemedicine technology, ranging from 24-hour monitoring in hospitals to checkups at the patient's home.
Mercy Virtual functions as a housing center for the health system's 18 virtual programs, including telemedicine capabilities in all of its hospitals' intensive-care units and telestroke, which allows neurologists to virtually treat patients suffering a stroke in an emergency setting.
“It's like a hospital without beds,” said Dr. Randall Moore, president of Mercy Virtual.
Moore said the care center will work with in-person services at Mercy's 45 hospitals across the country and five hospitals outside of Mercy's system. Mercy's telemedicine services treated 350,000 patients in the last year.
Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School, said telemedicine is appealing because it provides easier access to patients at a lower cost.
But there are barriers to the technology, he added. Patients in rural areas may not have access to the Internet and physicians may not be familiar enough with the technology to use it efficiently, he said.
As a healthcare provider, Moore said a hindrance to investing in telemedicine is that it's not fully reimbursed by Medicare and other payers.
Moore hopes proof of successful outcomes will encourage insurance providers to begin covering telemedicine services.
Mehrotra cautioned that payers should only cover telemedicine in some circumstances so quality of care is not impacted.
"Telemedicine's Achilles' heel is it is trying to increase convenience and access so it is easy to overuse,” Mehrotra said. “I would advocate not simply reimbursing this all the time but for targeted reimbursement based on patient population, where they live and for specific conditions.”