MADISON — Over the past couple of years, many of us have had to get used to using virtual meeting technology, like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, in our every day lives. Now, in rural Wisconsin, that same technology is bringing ICU-level care to places that might otherwise be unable to provide lifesaving care amid the pandemic.
"It brings resources to us that we never had before," said Jessica Faude, Interim VP of patient care services for Aspirus Medford Hospital.
At Aspirus Medford Hospital, the most recent wave of COVID-19 cases is proving to be daunting. Staff say patients are severely ill during a time when the number of hospital beds in intensive care units statewide is low.
According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, fewer than 100 of the state's more than 1,300 ICU beds were immediately available at the start of the week of Dec. 27. In rural areas, many hospitals also don't have staff with the skill set to provide such care to critically sick patients.
That's the problem that the eICU program by UW Hospital is trying to address.
"Having this resource has really helped assure us that we are really doing great things here in Medford, this small little critical access hospital in rural Wisconsin, we are doing great things because of our partnership with UW," said Faude.
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UW Hospital's eICU was started back in 2008.
It allows critical care doctors and nurses to monitor very sick patients remotely. Live video brings high-level care to people in places without the resources that big hospitals have. It all started with a goal of keeping sick people close to their loved ones in rural communities.
"We really wanted to help patients stay local," said Lynn Jacobs, the eICU's Nursing Supervisor.
Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for the service is growing.
"Since the pandemic began we have taken care of almost 1,300 patients in the ICU setting with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19," said Jacobs.
The eICU's Medical Director, Dr. Jeff Wells, calls the program and the remote manpower it packs invaluable to small hospitals.
"We're able to give them the expertise from UW Hospital all the way up to the middle of the state and help them care for their patients 24/7 around the clock, whenever the need arises, they can have a critical care expert at their bedside," said Wells.
Officials also say the partnership between UW Hospital and these smaller hospitals is invaluable because the staff at the more rural hospitals gain new skills and the chance to work with patients they normally wouldn't work with. This improves the overall quality of care in rural Wisconsin.