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For the past decade, Mercy Health has explored telemedicine and its ability to deliver well-coordinated, state-of-the-art care to its patients in both rural and urban areas.

Now, the nonprofit Catholic health system is planning to make its telehealth programs and expertise, including stroke-related consultations by neurologists and 24/7 intensive care monitoring of patients in far-flung hospitals, available to other health chains across the country.

On Tuesday, Mercy will break ground on a “virtual care center” in Chesterfield that, beginning in 2015, will house 300 physicians, nurses, technicians, researchers and support staff who focus on the health system’s various telemedicine programs.

The event at 11 a.m. will be available for viewing at www.mercyvirtual.net

Telemedicine draws from around-the-clock audio, video and data connections to provide continuous, real-time monitoring and care for certain patients and long-distance consultation services for others.

These tools have been used increasingly in recent years by psychiatrists, pediatric cardiologists and other specialists at Mercy and other leading health systems as well as intensive care nurses and hospitalists.

A recent study by the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund concluded that nursing homes that use telemedicine to provide after-hours care significantly reduce the hospitalization rates of nursing home patients.

A 2013 study by the Commonwealth Fund concluded that telemedicine can reduce the overall amount of U.S. health care spending.

“It’s been a 10-year journey,” said Dr. Tom Hale, executive medical director of Mercy’s telehealth services.

He said the virtual care center would function as a “switchboard hub” that would enable Mercy to focus on “a holistic approach and continuity of care” for not only its hospital patients, but also outpatients with chronic conditions.

“It’s not a replacement for care or the traditional relationship between doctor and patient,” Hale said. “The whole concept of telehealth is to allow patients to stay in their communities.”

Mercy also plans to offer its telemedicine expertise and services to other health systems through consulting, management and operational contracts. A new entity, Mercy Virtual, has been established to pursue this market.

“There’s an opportunity to benefit other communities,” said Lynn Britton, Mercy’s chief executive. “We want to commercialize. ... It’s an emerging market.”

He said that a 1 percent market share of telemedicine could equal as much as $600 million, but he declined to speculate how Mercy would fare against other competitors entering the field.

Construction of Mercy’s virtual care center is budgeted at about $50 million. The facility will also take advantage of the roughly $500 million Mercy invested in recent years in converting to electronic health records.

“More insurers are starting to support telemedicine services as a very real alternative to face-to-face services,” said Shannon Sock, Mercy’s executive vice president.

Telemedicine, he added, enables physicians “to deliver better outcomes and broaden access to quality services at lower cost” — to provide preventive care and help keep people out of the hospital.

Since 2006, the health system’s “Safewatch” unit at Mercy Hospital St. Louis has used in-room, two-way audio, video and computer connections to monitor more than 450 intensive care unit beds at Mercy facilities in other states.

Some patients are using telemedicine equipment in their homes to monitor diabetes and other chronic conditions. In other cases, physicians and patients are able to use televideo networks to provide “virtual” doctor’s appointments, a factor that is becoming more crucial given the decreasing number of physicians in urban and rural areas.

“Our patients are really asking for and even demanding (telemedicine),” Britton said. “Patients love it, once they understand it.”

Rather than take time off work and drive three hours across the state for an appointment with a specialist, he said, a patient can telecommunicate with the physician. “We’ve made efforts to make the televisit just as personal.”

Mercy takes care of about 3.2 million patients a year, of whom about 180,000 spend a least one night in the hospital and 40,000 have congestive heart failure. The health system provides continuous monitoring for more than 1,000 patients diagnosed with congestive heart failure, reducing hospitalizations and improving the quality of their lives.

About 60 percent of Mercy’s population is rural; about 30 percent is elderly.

One success of Mercy’s telemedicine services is its early warning system for sepsis (a form of life-threatening infection). Mercy’s electronic health record automatically searches for more than 800 warning signs to identify patients at risk for sepsis and alerts doctors to these risks, leading to early intervention and saved lives.

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