Conference Coverage

Telehealth helps cut mortality risk among ICU patients


Patients who received telemedicine in an intensive care unit were less likely to die and more likely to have a shorter hospital stay than those who received standard ICU care without a 24-hour intensivist on-site, new data suggest.

Chiedozie I. Udeh, MD, staff intensivist with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, presented results of a retrospective study of 153,987 consecutive ICU patients at the Critical Care Congress sponsored by the Society of Critical Care Medicine. .

Among the statistically significant findings were that 30-day mortality decreased by 18% (odds ratio, 0.82; 95% confidence interval, 0.77-0.87) and length of stay in the ICU decreased by 1.6 days in the telehealth model (95% CI, 1.5-1.7), compared with the traditional model. The total length of the average hospital stay was reduced by 2.1 days (95% CI, 1.9-2.4).

Patients in the study received ICU care at one of nine Cleveland Clinic hospitals between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2019. Overall, 108,482 (70%) received ICU-telemedicine care during hours when an intensivist was not on-site.

Dr. Udeh said in an interview that only the largest academic centers typically have an intensivist on-site 24 hours a day. In the traditional model, critical care specialists may be on-site during the day but on call after hours.

In the tele-ICU model, in contrast, an intensivist – perhaps at a command center serving several hospitals – can observe and order treatments for patients remotely. The specialist has access to the patient’s medical record and test results, can monitor vital signs and visible changes, and can talk with both the patient and the nurse or other provider in the room.

Dr. Udeh said he suspects the 18% drop in mortality risk and the shorter hospital stay come from time saved. The physician doesn’t have to ask the nurse to look up health information and with constant monitoring can spot problems sooner or prevent them.

“You reduce a lot of the time from event to intervention or prevent an event by being more proactive,” Dr. Udeh said.

Ben Scott, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora, said in an interview that his institution uses the tele-ICU model in several of the smaller hospitals there and is not surprised that Dr. Udeh’s team found such positive results. Dr. Scott was not involved in Dr. Udeh’s study.

“Most of us who have been working in this area and studying the results believe that these programs can make a big difference,” said Dr. Scott, vice chair for the SCCM tele-critical-care committee.

The smaller UC hospitals have ICU capability but not the census numbers to warrant 24-hour intensivist coverage. Of course, they do have 24-hour nursing coverage, and they typically use telemedicine when an intensivist is needed during the night, Dr. Scott said.

Hard to pinpoint telemedicine’s role

Dr. Scott said it’s hard to determine from studies how much telemedicine is influencing outcomes, compared with potentially confounding factors. A hospital with several ICUs might choose to send a patient to a certain ICU for a particular reason, which could confound comparisons.

The statistical techniques Dr. Udeh’s team used, however, helped account for confounding, Dr. Scott said. The extended years for the study and large patient sample also strengthen confidence in the results, he said.

The researchers found that several factors can increase an ICU patient’s risk of dying, including the reason for admission (such as cardiac arrest or sepsis), being admitted on a weekend, and the patient’s race. But they found that telemedicine might mitigate the effects of weekend admissions; the telemedicine patients admitted on a weekend in this study were no more likely to die than those admitted on a weekday.

The telemedicine model is especially important in areas without intensivists.

“If my only recourse is to send my patient out of town or out of state to another hospital, it’s a win-win,” Dr. Udeh said.

Regardless of the resources of individual hospitals, the national picture is clear, he said. “We just don’t have enough people trained in critical care to place an intensivist in every ICU 24/7.”

In late January, Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital in Green Valley, Ariz., temporarily shut down its ICU. The hospital CEO said the closure came because the hospital was unable to hire a pulmonologist.


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