Avera eCARE® has received $803,588 in federal funding to enhance telehealth support for up to 60 hospitals, many in rural locations, as they deal with challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Avera eCARE is the first site in South Dakota to receive these funds.

Funds awarded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program are part of over $157 million authorized by the CARES Act.

Participating hospitals, which already have a connection to eCARE Emergency, will be able to add equipment to offer telemedicine consults in another room or at another bed. This includes both Avera and non-Avera sites that use the eCARE Emergency service.

This expands the number of patients that can be served through telehealth at one time. “Rural hospitals are challenged by the need to be ready to serve COVID-19 patients, while also caring for other typical emergency room visits, including injuries, acute illnesses and critical health events such as heart attack or stroke,” said Mandy Bell, Quality and Innovation Officer for Avera eCARE.

Telehealth can help extend resources when higher demand puts a strain on local resources. It also provides around-the-clock backup and support.

Rural hospitals are typically staffed by a small community of physicians and advanced practice providers who serve most of the medical needs of local and area residents at the clinic, hospital, emergency room, and nursing home. “This small group could quickly become overwhelmed during a surge at their hospital, even if they are transferring patients to urban centers,” Bell said.

eCARE Emergency offers immediate access to a full team of emergency physicians, emergency nurses, and specialty providers to assist in treating a wide variety of medical conditions, such as trauma, heart attack, stroke, acute mental illness, serious infection and more.

This funding will be used to support local providers when responding to COVID-19 positive or suspected patients, providing real-time consults on treatment guidelines, medications, intubation, respiratory therapy and ventilator management, as well as transfer support. “Additionally, use of telehealth can reduce the number of people who must be in the room when caring for a potentially contagious patient, protecting staff and conserving valuable protective equipment,” Bell said.

Enhanced telehealth access will provide collegial support to local providers in a variety of situations, for example, when patient numbers surge, when providers are busy seeing patients elsewhere, or when local facilities are temporarily short-staffed.

Grant funding will purchase videoconferencing cameras, microphones, monitors and a specialized phone to initiate a telemedicine encounter simply by pushing a button. It will also purchase video laryngoscopes for sites – a piece of equipment that provides viewing of the larynx while conducting intubation to open the airway.

eCARE Emergency’s monitoring and diagnostic equipment provides two-way, high definition video for clear communication between the patient and the remote provider team, and also allows remote providers to assess patient health with a pan-and-zoom camera, to see patient pupil response, to read patient EKGs, and more.

“We recognize that this is a competitive funding process, and we are grateful to the FCC for making provisions to help small rural and community hospitals meet the challenges presented by COVID-19,” Bell said.