Connection, Collaboration and Innovation: Keys to Avera eCARE’s Telemedicine Success

An innovative spirit among Avera employees on a mission to bring health care to underserved communities provided the spark that started Avera eCARE®’s telemedicine movement in 1993. Today, that same spirit continues to fuel their ability to transform the way health care is delivered across the world.

Avera eCARE Chief Executive Officer Deanna Larson, who was also recently named one of the top 50+ Innovation Leaders by AARP, answers frequently asked questions about Avera eCARE.

What exactly is Avera eCARE?

For nearly 25 years, we’ve had one mission – to connect rural and underserved communities with specialized health care services 24/7 via telemedicine. We offer the kind of support that they otherwise might only find in an urban center. That mission has propelled us to becoming the most robust telemedicine network in the world.

Through high-definition, interactive video and sophisticated computer monitoring equipment, we’re able to provide emergency care, critical care, specialty consultations, pharmaceutical care, senior care and more to a variety of partners – everything from hospital systems and critical access hospitals to long-term care facilities, correctional facilities and even schools.

And it’s all based out of our virtual hospital hub in Sioux Falls, S.D., and we have now launched a second hub in San Antonio, Texas.

Instead of hallways with patient rooms, our virtual hospital hubs are marked by computers with multiple monitors, interactive video cameras and phones. We’re staffed 24/7 with board-certified emergency medicine specialists, intensivists, pharmacists, advanced practice providers and registered nurses with specialty certification in emergency room and critical care.

It’s all about connecting local health care providers with expert colleagues who are ready to collaborate with and support them at the push of a button.

Why is telemedicine important?

Health care is becoming more and more specialized. It’s a challenge however, for rural communities to support these specialists. It’s important to find a way to connect those highly trained professionals with the people who need their specialized services.

With telemedicine, we can leverage the expertise of specialty providers by connecting them to patients across the state – or world – from our virtual hospital hub. It’s more realistic than asking patients to travel hundreds of miles to a major health center and more efficient than asking providers to travel to outreach sites.

Telemedicine can also play a role in making health care more affordable. By intervening in a medical situation before it becomes acute or requires a hospitalization, we can help reduce unnecessary costs, which will contribute to making health care more affordable over time.

One example of this is how our eCARE Senior Care service helps long-term care facilities avoid unnecessary transfers. Over the past 12 months, 90 percent of residents at participating facilities who needed urgent care were able to be treated in their home facility – saving both time and money. 

How does telemedicine contribute to the greater good of community health?

Convenience: With telemedicine, patients can receive the specialty care they need closer to home. And when it’s convenient, they’re more likely to seek out the care they need.

Confidence: Telemedicine has been shown to increase the confidence that community members have in their local health care. They’re coming to understand that should they or a loved one need specialty care, their local provider can deliver a high level of care, closer to home, because they’re supported by Avera eCARE specialists.

Collaboration: In telemedicine we work alongside, collaborate with and augment the care where people live. We give rural providers a colleague they can call on – just like they would have in an urban center – for support and a second opinion. It offers them the opportunity to engage with a specialist who cares for a particular situation or condition more frequently. By working together, it not only raises their competence in complex situations, but you can also notice an increase in their confidence the next time they call. And it’s all built on trust and mutual respect among the providers. We become an extension of the local health care team. 

Recruitment: Our partners tell us that the collegial nature of Avera eCARE helps them recruit new providers and extend the careers of current providers in their rural communities.

How have “simple” innovations made a big impact?

We’re very intentional about product development. Our goal is to create products that are simple, efficient, seamless and intuitive to use, especially in circumstances when every second matters. That kind of innovation takes collaboration with both our health care and technology partners.

The red button – placed on the walls of emergency rooms equipped for eCARE Emergency calls – is one of my favorite examples.

In the early days of developing eCARE Emergency, we were trying to answer the question: “Why do telemedicine units just sit and get dusty in closets?” We discovered it was because in the midst of an emergency situation, the nurse had to pull it out and enter an IPL address. It was too much to handle in the moment and they’d forget about it.

We knew that in order for our product to be easily adopted, we had to create something that required no extra steps. That’s when the idea of a red button came up. After pushing the button, we do all the work behind the scenes to connect them to the eCARE Emergency team. Within seconds, our team is virtually “in” the room and connected to the patient’s electronic medical records and vitals.

When the local team is doing highly technical work in a high-pressure situation, it’s key that we take any workload off of them that we can. That allows them to be more present and focused on direct patient care.

It sounds simple, but it was innovative because it made us accessible at the push of a button. Our drive to innovate always ties back to our mission of making health care more accessible – to both patients and providers.

What do you see for the future of telemedicine?

My vision is that we’ll have a national network of telemedicine providers who can share and learn from one another to provide the best care possible. This network would be open and available to help people across the nation and across the globe. Every community would have the opportunity to optimize their health care through telemedicine. It’s not easy work, but it’s worth it.