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‘Virtual Ward’ pilot program to reduce hospital stay time

Image of Man's arm with blood pressure cuff and fingertip pulse oximeter. Click to open a larger version of the image. A staff member demonstrates CRDAMC’s “virtual ward” (pilot) system which includes a wireless blood pressure cuff and pulse oximeter that transmits a patient’s vital-sign readings via Bluetooth to a web-based database on the dedicated cellphone. The remote monitoring capabilities of the Virtual Ward offers certain patients the option to reduce their hospital stay and recover at home. (Photo by Patricia Deal, CRDAMC.)

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The Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center (CRDAMC) at Fort Hood, Texas is test piloting a ‘virtual ward’ system which gives qualifying patients the option to be discharged early so they can recover at home with the confidence that they are being monitored and supported by their healthcare team.

The virtual ward system CRDAMC is testing is a variation of USAMMDA's Medical Hands-free Unified Broadcast (MEDHUB), a medical communications platform that typically exchanges trauma patient information between medics and receiving hospitals during medical evacuations.

“The goal of virtual telemedicine applications like the virtual ward is to allow us to deliver safe, effective healthcare so that patients can manage their medical treatment without them having to physically come to the hospital or clinic,” said Army Lt. Col. Garrett Meyers, chief of the Department of Family and Community Medicine. “The virtual ward ideally could shorten the hospital stay for patients with blood pressure problems, COPD or CHF exacerbations or other related conditions. The idea is that instead of staying in hospital longer than is strictly necessary, patients are released early and can recover in the comfort and privacy of their homes once they are at minimum risk. It helps ease any anxiety they might have about being in a hospital, plus it frees up hospital staff and beds.”

The CRDAMC virtual ward variant is designed to be compact and user-friendly. It includes a wireless blood pressure cuff and pulse oximeter which allow patients to get immediate, accurate readings of their vital signs. The sensors transmit their vital-sign readings via Bluetooth to a dedicated cellphone also included with the system and the data is automatically entered into a web-based database.

Patients take their vital sign readings at regular intervals as prescribed by their physician and a member of the patient’s healthcare team reviews the data and transposes into the patient’s medical record.

The system also allows the healthcare provider to set individual parameters which would highlight specified values in red so everyone can immediately see if the patient’s readings fall outside of the expected range. If their condition warrants, patients may be called back to the hospital for observation or treatment if necessary.

The virtual ward is another addition to CRDAMC’s wide array of virtual health applications as the hospital continues to leverage technology and telemedicine advancements to enhance traditional health care practices. As COVID-19 has spurred new ideas and innovations in the way healthcare is delivered, CRDAMC has embraced virtual health as the new norm. The hospital currently leads all DOD military treatment facilities worldwide in telehealth services utilization, having the highest service member enrollment and providing more than 25,000 virtual video visits in the last few months.

“Technological advancements have impacted the healthcare system. Telemedicine trends like secure messaging between doctor and patient via any device from anyplace, tele-visits and wearable technology to monitor conditions at home have empowered people to take control of their healthcare,” Meyers said. “It’s all about making sure that people are getting the care they need, when they need it at the right time and in the right setting for them.”

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