The first 'virtual hospital' in Australia will be established in NSW within two weeks to treat coronavirus patients from their homes.
Hundreds of coronavirus patients who present at the Armidale Hospital emergency department in the far north of NSW – and who otherwise would have needed a hospital bed – will soon be allowed to go home with sophisticated machines to monitor their vital signs.
A team of doctors, supported by an artificial intelligence program, will check up on them and bring them into hospital if their conditions worsen.
Hospitals could be overwhelmed by the pandemic.Credit:Glenn Hunt
Should the pilot go well, virtual hospitals could be rolled out across Australia.
As Australia's healthcare system braces for an enormous surge of coronavirus patients, potentially overwhelming hospital capacity, there is an urgent need to find safe ways to keep sick people out of hospital.
The virtual hospital has enough funding to launch, but is not fully funded.
But as Professor Rod McClure, dean of medicine at the University of New England, watched the crisis unfold he decided the need was urgent.
"We couldn't wait for everything to fall into place," he told The Age. "There comes a point where you have to believe in yourself. This thing is moving so quickly."
The plan is to issue 200 patients who have moderate symptoms of the virus with home monitors that will continuously track their heart rate, temperature, oxygen saturation, blood pressure and breathing, including when they sleep.
"They are intensive care unit-quality monitors," says Professor McClure, a public health expert who spent several years as a director at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Similar virtual hospitals operate in America.
That data should allow doctors – supported by AI – to pick up when someone's condition is worsening. Changes to blood pressure are an early warning sign of sepsis or organ damage. Changes to oxygen saturation typically occur before pneumonia sets in.
Patients with mild symptoms, who would typically not be admitted to hospital, will not receive a monitor but will get regular video check-ins with doctors.
Patients with the most severe symptoms will still be admitted to hospital as usual.
The data will be fed back to a "flight deck" where a team of doctors, nurses and specialists can monitor them at the hospital.
Professor McClure had been refining his idea for years as a way of providing better healthcare to regional areas.
But the sudden need to care for potentially thousands of coronavirus patients – potentially overwhelming hospitals across the nation – has led him to roll the project out now with about $1 million in funding from the university.
“This has become an issue which has become global overnight: the need to access services from isolation," he said.
“The systems that support virtual access to services are not there. But the technology is.”
Professor McClure purchased the monitors on Sunday. If the pilot is successful, he hopes to approach the federal government for funding to roll it out more widely.
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