Higher survival rates in intensive care units equipped with telehealth technologies more than offset the initial high cost of implementing such applications, a research report compiling several case studies reveals.
Amidst the digital health revolution, financially-challenged hospitals are still wary of implementing costly telemedicine and telehealth programs which could jeopardize the bottom line. In critical care units, it has been estimated that a tele-ICU bed costs between $50,000 and $100,000 and the benefits of investing that much amount of money were unclear. Critics say smaller ICU units can improve patient care without having to spend millions on tele-ICU systems.
According to the American Journal of Critical Care, tele-ICU is a “concept of care in which a centralized or remotely based critical care team is networked with the bedside intensive care unit (ICU) team and patient via state-of-the-art audiovisual communication and computer systems.”
Telemedicine in ICUs were initially adapted quickly but the trend seems to be slowing down in recent years because of cost concerns. Intensive care unit beds comprise just 7 percent of all acute care hospital beds but account for 13.4 percent of total hospital costs and 4.1 percent of national health spending, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine.
Now, a literature review of tele-ICU case studies in the past decade is showing evidence that the substantial cost may indeed be offset by long-term benefits of implementing a telehealth strategy in ICUs, just enough to convince hospital administrators who are on the fence. Health care organizations are under pressure to improve patient outcomes but also to minimize costs. Striking the right balance is difficult, but findings detailed on the paper may offer a solution.
In the report published online in Telemedicine and e-Health, researchers found out that patients in tele-ICU units have a 26 percent better survival rate during their ICU stay compared to other patients in standard ICU units with no telehealth infrastructure or practice. Additionally, patients cared for under tele-ICUs were 16 percent more likely to survive their overall hospital stay. Not only did patients did better but facilities included in the review reported a 24 percent reduction in costs mostly because patients were discharged faster.
The report cites a case study involving several rural hospitals in the U.S. Midwest who implemented a tele-ICU program that resulted to savings of up to $8 million. Meanwhile, a tele-ICU system by a large hospital system across the northwest region netted $920,000 in savings in one year. An academic surgical ICU reported a 10 percent decrease in length of stay in the ICU and a 20 percent reduction in length of regular room stay after the facility implemented a tele-ICU system.
Other than cost savings and better patient outcomes, tele-ICU implementation was also linked to better staff communication, improved teamwork and better patient satisfaction. With telemedicine, patients in rural areas can remain close to their families during a hospital stay without having to be transferred from their local community hospitals to large metropolitan hospitals farther away
Big city hospitals have better equipment and available ICU doctors, and critical care under these intensivists are tied to better patient outcomes. However, these doctors are in short supply in rural and underserved communities. Telehealth and telemedicine systems can connect ICU doctors to their patients remotely using voice, video, computers and the Internet, lowering costs but raising the level of care.
"The implementation of tele-ICU has had long-term financial benefits and an increase of patient safety and patient satisfaction," the report says. "Tele-ICU has the potential to be the wave of the future in intensive care medicine due to the cost savings and improvement of provided quality of care."