St. Luke’s Health System has established Idaho’s first “virtual hospital” in Downtown Boise’s Washington Group Plaza, located on the north side of Park Boulevard just east of Broadway Avenue.
The virtual hospital is a place where more than 100 doctors, nurses and care managers can communicate over video with patients and medical teams at hospitals and clinics around the region. It addresses a shortage of doctors and other medical professionals that’s especially acute in Idaho’s rural areas.
Here’s how it works: A patient with, say, a lung problem would visit the doctor at a clinic in McCall, for example. That clinic might not have a lung specialist on staff. So another provider would contact a St. Luke’s lung specialist at the virtual hospital in Boise to discuss the patient’s diagnosis, treatment options and whether the patient ought to be transferred to a hospital or another clinic.
At launch, the system is available at all St. Luke’s hospitals and clinics, West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell (which bought its own ICU equipment and pays to connect to the service), and through a broader network of doctors with ties to St. Luke’s. All told, residents across the middle third of Idaho and in two Oregon counties may have access to the system, depending on their physician.
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The doctor in Boise occupies one of 60 work stations in a 35,000-square-foot space on the second floor of the building at 720 E. Park Blvd. The stations are equipped with long, curved monitors and covered with movable screens called “sails” that keep passers-by from seeing sensitive information.
The doctor can call up medical records and even watch the patient’s vital signs in real time.
“We more or less are mimicking the visit that you would have face-to-face in a provider’s office,” said Eric Rich, a pulmonary and critical care physician who is medical director of St. Luke’s Virtual Care Center. “It’s just utilizing technology to bridge the geographical barriers that are particularly present in Idaho.”
Patients also can use the virtual hospital to manage chronic diseases like diabetes from their own homes or on the road. The patients use tablets to communicate with nurses about their conditions, medications and other aspects of their treatment.
“It really gives a patient with a chronic illness the ability to live their life how they want to live it, in a convenient way, and manage that illness at the same time,” said Krista Stadler, a nurse and senior director of the Virtual Care Center.
In addition to improving health care, the broadband needed for virtual care could lead to better networks in rural areas that other industries and residents can use, Rich said.
The four-building, 622,000-square-foot Washington Group Plaza was once the home of Morrison-Knudsen, a Boise heavy construction company that built big projects like the Hoover Dam and Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
St. Luke’s bought the complex in March, paying $86.5 million to a Canadian private equity partnership.
The hospital has been doing virtual care since around 2010, Rich said. This, however, is the first time it’s had such a large space dedicated specifically for the service.