When Tom Becker was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in March 2020, the 60-year-old EMS helicopter pilot from Washington, Missouri, worried he would never fly again.
But his cardiologist, Dr. Christopher Allen, had served in the Air Force and knew aviation physiology. So Becker felt reassured when Allen told him he didn’t expect any problems, because Becker was still fairly young.
Allen told Becker — who lives about 50 minutes away from his office at Mercy Hospital South, near St. Louis — that Becker could call his cellphone with any concerns and meet with him virtually. Becker estimates they had more than 10 video appointments over six months.
“The video visits worked just the same as being in the office,” said Becker.
That’s a common assessment from patients and providers at Mercy, the St. Louis-based Roman Catholic health care organization that became a pioneer in telehealth in 2015 when it opened Mercy Virtual Care Center in the suburb of Chesterfield. Officials described the $54 million stand-alone facility as the world’s first “hospital without beds.” And after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mercy became a model for ramping up telehealth throughout a health system.
The virtual care center, whose staff includes doctors, nurses and technology professionals, is not siloed from traditional care; it’s a hub from which some care is provided and new approaches to telehealth are introduced.
“It’s an integrated part of what we do every day,” said Mercy Virtual’s president, Dr. J. Gavin Helton.
Having the virtual center gave Mercy a head start when the pandemic forced doctors and hospitals across the nation to turn to telehealth. With insurers and the federal government footing the bill, virtual visits suddenly went from being allowed only in the narrowest of circumstances to often being the only option.
Though Mercy leaders and doctors have had years to try out and evaluate virtual care, some health experts are now concerned that the overnight adoption of telehealth nationally hasn’t allowed enough time for research to determine when it’s effective.
If the floodgates to telemedicine remain wide open, they warn, wasteful spending, fraud and bad health outcomes could ensue. Some worry doctors could start charging gratuitously for visits they used to handle as free phone calls.