Tele-ICUs Can Save Lives, Cut Costs

A study of Massachusetts hospitals found that using telemedicine technology to treat critical care patients can reduce costs and shorten patient stays in ICUs.

Widespread use of telemedicine technology in intensive care units could save 350 patient lives and more than $122 million annually in Massachusetts, according to a study by the New England Healthcare Institute and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

The report—entitled, “Critical Care, Critical Choices: The Case for Tele-ICUs in Intensive Care”—examined data from a demonstration project at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center and two Massachusetts community hospitals, and found that hospitals using tele-ICU programs have experienced “great improvements in patient outcomes, mortality, length of stay, margin per case, patient retention and volume growth.”

The study, audited by Price-Waterhouse Coopers, was commissioned in 2006 to determine whether tele-ICUs could be the solution to a growing nationwide shortage of available critical care physicians. In the next 20 years, the capacity need of current ICUs will triple, and the number of intensivists will not keep up with this staggering demand, according to the report’s authors, who estimate ICU costs to be $107 billion per year.

Tele-ICU has the potential to address this critical care staffi ng shortage by enabling intensivists in a “command center” to remotely monitor, consult, and care for ICU patients in multiple and distant locations, it said. By increasing the number of ICU patients that critical care teams can manage, tele-ICUs can “effectively extend and leverage both the productivity and the reach of the specialists.”

However, despite the potential of tele-ICUs to provide remote intensivist coverage to critical care patients, the adoption of the technology by hospitals both in Massachusetts and nationally has been slow and uneven. The report cited a number of barriers to adoption, including capital and operating costs, as well as organization and physician resistance, technical incompatibilities, cross state licensure issues, and lack of payment for the tele-ICU services.

But for those organizations that are able to foot the costs, the telemedicine technology can enable providers to monitor a greater number of ICU patients in several locations from a centralized command center, according to the report, which outlined the benefits of tele-ICUs in the study:

  • Decreased length of hospital stay by an average of two days at UMass Memorial
  • Lowered mortality by 20% at UMass Memorial and by 13% at the community hospitals
  • Reduced costs for insurers by $2,600 per patient treated at UMass Memorial.

In addition, tele-ICUs enabled community hospitals to treat more patients because of improved efficiency. According to the study, both community hospitals were able to care for an average of 50% more patients with tele-ICU monitoring.

“The improved efficiency could mitigate the need for additional, costly ICU beds and allow patients to remain in their community hospitals for care,” the authors wrote. “Given these clinical and financial benefits, the effective implementation of tele-ICU technology should be seriously considered in hospitals around the country.”

To access the full report, click here.