HCA, Illini Community Hospital find psychiatric patients prefer robots to in-person visit with a doctor

Other hospitals including PeaceHealth in the Pacific Northwest are also finding video consults can also open doors to other services to the benefit of patients and healthcare providers.
By Larry McClain
07:08 AM
HCA Illini Community robots Skype

Illini Community Hospital is a 25-bed critical access hospital in Illinois that, despite its size, has a thriving telebehavioral care program that utilizes three robots.

The facility operates the 10-bed Worthington Square geriatric unit wherein psychiatrists see patients remotely from a tertiary facility in Quincy, Illinois and as far away as Kansas City.

“Surprisingly, most of the geriatric psych patients are very comfortable with the robot because they remember the cartoon TV show The Jetsons,” Illini CEO Kathy Hull said.

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Indeed, as telebehavioral services continue gaining traction, hospitals of all sizes are tapping into unexpected benefits on consulting with patient remotely via modern technologies. Healthcare Corporation of America and PeaceHealth System are also seeing results similar to Illini Community’s, though each is taking a different tack to reach patients.

Robots aid consultations
During a telepsychiatric visit at Illini Community, for instance, the doctor’s entire face is fully visible to the patient, and vice versa, and both eye contact and vocal clarity are engineered to emulate an in-person visit. Illini’s program, it’s worth noting, has already earned a Press Ganey satisfaction score of 99 percent.

“The robot can also go to the bedside if a patient has serious co-morbid conditions,” Hull said.

At HCA, meanwhile, some doctors report that psychotic patients actually focus better on the monitor screen than in-person, according to Jonathan White, HCA’s assistant vice president of patient access and referral management. 

[Also: Mayo Clinic, Thomas Jefferson transform telehealth and virtual care to redesign the patient experience]

“Many of our patients already use Skype,” White continued, “so they’re not intimidated by the technology.”

The size and scope of HCA’s Health Access and Control Center is vast compared to Illini Community and the hospital giant conducted more than 17,000 telebehavioral health encounters last year.

Across the HCA network, in fact, emergency physicians call the same number for telestroke and telepsychiatric cases. And when it comes to behavioral cases, they’re often put in touch with mid-level providers like psychologists and LCSWs, or with psychiatrists when appropriate.

Janet Perez, LCSW manages the telebehavioral program at four Oregon hospitals in the PeaceHealth System. The Cottage Grove facility does remote child and adolescent telepsychiatric consultations – and patients can now be treated long-distance at the Florence, Oregon hospital, which currently has no staff psychiatrist.

“Our patients do well with telebehavioral care when the attending nurse is comfortable with the process and can explain it easily,” Perez said.

Upsides for hospitals  
Advantages go beyond patients simply liking to visit with doctors through monitors and robots, of course. There are also travel costs and wait times to consider.

Both the health risks and cost, in fact, increase dramatically when a psychiatric patient waits longer than four hours in an emergency department, HCA’s White said.

“Our reporting shows that patients are seen faster and do much better – at a significantly lower cost – using telebehavioral technology,” White added.

At PeaceHealth, Perez said that the telehealth services often open doors to other care services—which is among the reasons she plans to widen the network to include two additional hospitals in southern Oregon.

“About 80 percent of patients ultimately get connected to resources other than a psychiatric hospital,” Perez said.  

To reap the rewards, Illini Community’s Hull said that it is important to get patients engaged and comfortable before a session starts.

“Our patients trust that the session will have the same confidentiality and positive interaction as an in-person visit,” Hull said. 

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