Tele-ICUs put rural Georgia on the map

Northeast Georgia Medical Center, North Patient Tower

Project sees big winnings, bigger savings for Medicare patients

ATLANTA – With the highest mortality rate in healthcare and costing hospitals an estimated $180 billion each year, intensive care units (ICUs) are established regulars in the health IT reform spotlight.

Emory University, in collaboration with several medical centers throughout Georgia, seeks to improve the denigrated face of ICUs. Utilizing Philips eICU technology, the project will provide telehealth intensive critical care to underserved, rural hospitals in Northern Georgia, reaching more than 10,000 Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

The Emory collaboration, a partnership of colleagues at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Northeast Georgia Hospital and Southern Regional Medical Center, earned a $10.7 million Health Care Innovation award from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) for the project’s mission to improve the quality of patient critical care while also reducing cost inefficiencies.

Projected to save an estimated $18.4 million over the course of three years, the award will be used to employ more than 40 critical care providers while also providing training and support for 400 critical care and administrative professionals.

Timothy Buchman, MD, director of the Emory Center for Critical Care said one driving force behind the project was the need to address several serious problems ICUs are faced with today.

First, as Buchman explained, “there aren’t enough intensive care doctors being produced to meet the need.” As a consequence, underserved and rural hospitals, in particular, are not receiving the same quality of patient critical care and are in serious shortage of critical care physicians.

A second problem, Buchman continued, is that staffing a rural ICU with enough intensive care physicians becomes “prohibitively expensive,” as intensive care doctors cost a pretty penny.

The shortage and cost of critical care providers also collide with another issue: the nation’s rapidly increasing aging population.

Aside from pediatrics, ICUs predominantly consist of Medicare beneficiaries. In 2000, there were more than 39 million Medicare beneficiaries; in 2011, that number increased to nearly 48 million. That’s a massive increase in the number of patients who are likely to need critical care services.

Moreover, looking at the combined expenses, bringing an ICU bed online for a single patient costs between $2 and $2.5 million. That’s a number guaranteed to give hospital CFOs the jitters.