UF Health develops critical-care telemedicine to benefit COVID-19 patients in The Villages

When COVID-19 cases began climbing throughout the country in March, UF Health medical leaders in Gainesville and Central Florida focused on the need to deliver round-the-clock critical care at hospitals in The Villages® and Leesburg.

In just days, they had a solution in place — a telehealth-based system that connects critical-care physicians at UF Health in Gainesville with patients in the Central Florida hospitals. Those systems, commonly known as an eICU, typically require significant amounts of planning and specialized equipment. With the virus spiking at various locations, the race to develop a remote critical-care function was on.

David H. Berger, M.D., chief operating officer of UF Health Central Florida, recognized the urgent need and moved quickly to address it.  A core group of UF Health leaders, physicians, and information technology experts rolled up their sleeves. On March 26, they had their first meeting.

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“The concern was that the Central Florida hospitals would be overwhelmed if there was a large surge of COVID-19 cases. The idea was to find a way to help them on short notice,” said Edward K. McGough, M.D., an associate professor of anesthesiology in the UF College of Medicine and interim chief of critical care medicine who worked on the eICU project.

The challenges were many: Quickly build a system that would allow UF Health critical-care specialists to remotely access patients’ electronic health records, view X-rays and other diagnostic images, monitor vital signs, consult with the on-site medical staff and provide expert medical guidance in real time.

Within 48 hours, they had a working solution — a repurposed patient tray table outfitted with a Microsoft Surface laptop computer. The Gainesville-based critical care physicians spent about 45 minutes each learning how to use the system, said Nichole Hampton, R.N., a clinical informatics specialist who helped to coordinate the training.

After it was devised, the eICU system has been used by the hospitals. It played a key role in helping physicians decide to transfer at least two criticially ill COVID-19 patients to UF Health in Gainesville.

Another advantage of the new system is its accessibility: Physicians don’t have to be in a hospital and can log in from anywhere with computer and an internet connection for a virtual bedside visit. A real-time camera allows the physician to examine and communicate with the patient.

“We now have the ability to have critical backup for our ICUs on a minute-to-minute basis,” Berger said.

The eICU capability also builds on a history of telehealth that has benefited patients in The Villages® and Leesburg hospitals, said David Steele, vice president and chief information and security officer for UF Health Central Florida. UF Health provides comprehensive stroke care and telestroke services to patients at the two Central Florida hospitals when needed, including round-the-clock access to consults with a vascular neurologist regarding treatment plans and decisions related to administration clot-busting drug medication for patients who remain in the local area.

UF Health officials said residents can be at ease knowing there is a system that instantly connects patients to critical-care specialists.

“The idea is to be an extra set of eyes providing real-time, expert consultations for COVID-19 patients,” McGough said.

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