For medical inpatients, the advent of virtual care began decades ago with telephones and the ability of physicians to give “verbal orders” while outside the hospital. It evolved into widespread adoption of pagers and is now ubiquitous through smart phones, texting, and HIPPA-compliant applications. In the past few years, inpatient telemedicine programs have been developed and studied including tele-ICU, telestroke, and now the telehospitalist.
Telemedicine is not new and has seen rapid adoption in the outpatient setting over the past decade,1 especially since the passing of telemedicine parity laws in 35 states to support equal reimbursement with face-to-face visits.2 In addition, 24 states have joined the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact (IMLC).3 This voluntary program provides an expedited pathway to licensure for qualified physicians who practice in multiple states. The goal is to increase access to care for patients in underserved and rural areas and to allow easier consultation through telemedicine. Combined, these two federal initiatives have lowered two major barriers to entry for telemedicine: reimbursement and credentialing.
Only a handful of papers have been published on the telehospitalist model with one of the first in 2007 in The Hospitalist reporting on the intersection between tele-ICU and telehospitalist care.4 More recent work describes the implementation of a telehospitalist program between a large university hospitalist program and a rural, critical access hospital.5 A key goal of this program, developed by Dr. Ethan Kuperman and colleagues at the University of Iowa, was to keep patients at the critical access hospital that previously would have been transferred. This has obvious benefits for patients, the critical access hospital, and the local community. It also benefited the tertiary care referral center, which was dealing with high occupancy rates. Keeping lower acuity patients at the critical access hospital helps maintain access for more complex patients at the referral center. This same principle has applied to the use of the tele-ICU where lower acuity ICU patients could remain in the small, rural ICU, and only those patients who the intensivist believes would benefit from a higher level of care in a tertiary center would be transferred.
As this study and others have shown, telemedicine is ripe for adoption by hospitalists. The bigger question is how should it fit into the current model of hospital medicine? There are several different applications we are familiar with and each has unique considerations. The first model, as applied in the Kuperman paper, is for a larger hospitalist program to provide a telehospitalist service to a smaller, unaffiliated hospital (for example, critical access hospitals) that employs nurse practitioners or physician assistants on site but can’t recruit or retain full-time hospitalist coverage. In this collaborative model of care, the local provider performs the physical exam but provides care under the guidance and supervision of a hospital medicine specialist. This is expected to improve outcomes and bring the benefits of hospital medicine, including improved outcomes and decreased hospital spending, to smaller communities.6 In this model, the critical access hospital pays a fee for the service and retains the billing to third party payers.
A variation on that model would provide telehospitalist services to other hospitals within an existing health care network (such as Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Healthcare, government hospitals) that have different financial models with incentives to collaborate. The Veterans Health Administration is embarking on a pilot through the VA Office of Rural Health to provide a telehospitalist service to small rural VA hospitals using the consultative model during the day with a nurse practitioner at the local site and physician backup from the emergency department. Although existing night cross-coverage will be maintained by a physician on call, this telehospitalist service may also evolve into providing cross-coverage on nights and weekends.
A third would be like a locum tenens model in which telehospitalist services are contracted for short periods of time when coverage is needed for vacations or staff shortages. A fourth model of telehospitalist care would be to international areas in need of hospitalist expertise, like a medical mission model but without the expense or time required to travel. Other models will likely evolve based on the demand for services, supply of hospitalists, changes in regulations, and reimbursement.
Another important consideration is how this will evolve for the practicing hospitalist. Will we have dedicated virtual hospitalists, akin to the “nocturnist” who covers nights and weekends? Or will working on the telehospitalist service be in the rotation of duties like many programs have with teaching and “nonteaching” services, medical consultation, and even transition clinics and emergency department triage responsibilities? It could serve as a lower-intensity service that can be staffed during office-based time that would include scholarly work, quality improvement, and administrative duties. If financially viable, it could be mutually beneficial for both the provider and recipient sides of telehospitalist care.
For any of these models to work, technical aspects must be ironed-out. It is indispensable for the provider to have remote access to the electronic health record for data review, documentation, and placing orders if needed. Adequate broadband for effective video connection, accompanied by the appropriate HIPPA-compliant software and hardware must be in place. Although highly specialized hardware has been developed, including remote stethoscopes and otoscopes, the key component is a good camera and video screen on each end of the interaction. Based upon prior experience with telemedicine programs, establishment of trusting relationships with the receiving hospital staff, physicians, and nurse practitioners is also critical. Optimally, the telehospitalist would have an opportunity to travel to the remote site to meet with the local care team and learn about the local resources and community. Many other operational and logistical issues need to be considered and will be supported by the Society of Hospital Medicine through publications, online resources, and national and regional meeting educational content on telehospitalist programs.
As hospital medicine adopts the telehospitalist model, it brings with it important considerations. First, is how we embrace the concept of the medical virtualist, a term used to describe physicians who spend the majority or all of their time caring for patients using a virtual medium.7 We find it difficult to imagine spending all or the majority of our time as a virtual hospitalist, but years ago many could not imagine someone being a full-time hospitalist or nocturnist. Some individuals will see this as a career opportunity that allows them to work as a hospitalist regardless of where they live or where the hospital is located. That has obvious advantages for both career choice and the provision of hospital medicine expertise to low-resourced or low-volume settings, such as rural or international locations and nights and weekends.
Second, the telehospitalist model will require professional standards, training, reimbursement and coding adjustments, hardware and software development, and managing patient expectations for care.
Lastly, hospitals, health care systems, hospitalist groups, and even individual hospitalists will have to determine how best to take advantage of this innovative model of care to provide the highest possible quality, in a cost-efficient manner, that supports professional satisfaction and development.