The University of North Carolina Healthcare is expanding its telemedicine program through a partnership with Mercy Virtual, the virtual care arm of Chesterfield, Mo.-based Mercy.
The collaboration is a new take on a common theme: telemedicine meets clinically integrated network. And it will allow faster and broader telemedicine adoption than if each health system tried to build its own independent program.
The partnership will allow both organizations to share their clinical expertise, with Mercy's added strength in virtual care.
In the first stage of the partnership, Mercy will monitor patients in UNC's 28-bed intensive-care unit. But the plan is to build a broad suite of joint services and programs, said Dr. Randy Moore, president of Mercy Virtual.
Financial terms were not disclosed. But Moore said the structure of the agreement is “based on the concept of shared ownership and equity.”
UNC represents the first of what could be several partnerships with other health systems. “Over time, we want to be able to offer this across the country,” Moore said.
The collaborations offer strategic as well as practical possibilities that make them unique from traditional telemedicine programs. For example, Moore said, if Mercy has a partner with a more robust dermatology program, it can immediately tap into those services.
On the practical side: “If the flu hits St. Louis and has not hit North Carolina, we may be fairly inundated and may be able to move workload over to UNC in the future,” Moore said. “We want to be able to accelerate what we're able to offer.”
UNC officials were not available to comment at deadline. But in a news release, the system emphasized that the arrangement is the first step to launching a comprehensive virtual-care strategy.
"This isn't just about purchasing telemedicine services; we've been practicing telemedicine for several years,” Dr. Alan Stiles, UNC Healthcare's senior vice president of network development and strategic affiliations, said in the release. “We were looking for a way to accelerate the development of a broader array of virtual services for our patients and medical staff.”
Telemedicine adoption is expected to snowball, with investments in the sector's vendors expected to swell from 2014's $200 million to $1 billion by the end of next year, according to a report this month from Accenture.
Last October, Mercy opened a $54 million virtual-care center, the cornerstone of its virtual-care program. The 34-hospital system, which operates in four states, tightly integrates its virtual services into its service lines, even requiring its fellows to complete a rotation in virtual care.
"Most virtual care should not be in a standalone silo,” Moore said. “Virtual just represents part of the continuum of care for patients.”
The reimbursement model for these services is also evolving, with 29 states now offering payment parity for telemedicine services, according to Accenture. A bipartisan Senate bill introduced this month also seeks greater Medicare coverage for telemedicine.
Virtual care is cost-effective under any payment model, Moore said.
“If we can continue to move to risk or gain share arrangements … then in essence, we've already been paid for,” he added. “That, to me, is the ideal model. If we remain in a fee-for-service environment, many of these services can be offered to payers.”
Mercy launched its SafeWatch Critical Care program in 2006. Doctors and nurses monitor ICU patients across six states. The system attributes a 35% reduction in length of stay as well as a 30% decrease in deaths to the program.
The system's other virtual offerings include telestroke and hospitalist programs as well as in-home monitoring for patients.
“The market desire for the 'Triple Aim' performance is the sweet spot for virtual care,” Moore said. “We believe most hospitalizations can be avoided for chronic disease. That will be a significant shift for the market.”