Mercy begins ‘new era in medicine' with construction of virtual care hub

June 1, 2014


Mercy launched what Lynn Britton, its president and chief executive, called "a new era in medicine" May 13 with an inventive virtual groundbreaking for the nation's first virtual care center in Chesterfield, Mo.

The site in suburban St. Louis will house a four-story, 120,000-square-foot center that is scheduled to open in 2015. Mercy projects that the nearly 300 specialists and subspecialist physicians, nurses, researchers and support staff working there will manage more than 3 million telehealth visits in the center's first five years. About 100 of the medical professionals in the center will be new hires, said Mercy spokeswoman Nancy Corbett.

Dr. Steven Sommer, a critical care physician, is among a team of Mercy specialists who remotely monitor more than 450 beds in 25 intensive care units across a five-state region.

"The center will bring together the nation's best telehealth professionals to reach more patients, develop more telemedicine services and improve how we deliver virtual care through education and innovation," Britton said in a press release.

The Mercy system now includes 32 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children's hospitals, three rehab hospitals and one orthopedic hospital in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Many facilities in the network hosted virtual groundbreaking parties May 13, where employees and local officials gathered for the debut of a groundbreaking video that features Britton and leaders of Mercy's virtual health initiative. By late in the week, the video had been viewed by people in 46 states and 12 countries.

The virtual groundbreaking footage includes sweeping aerial shots of St. Louis landmarks. As project lead Shannon Sock, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Mercy, lifts the ceremonial first spade of dirt, pixels fall like confetti to create a rendering of the building. The video is at, a site the system plans to fill with construction progress reports and information about its virtual medicine capabilities. "It didn't make sense to have a real groundbreaking of a virtual health center," said Corbett.

Mercy has been building its telemedicine capability for a decade with programs like SafeWatch eICU, which provides around-the-clock monitoring of a hospital's ICU patients through two-way audio, video and computer connections; telesepsis, which uses Mercy's electronic health records to automatically search for more than 800 warning signs that identify patients at risk of sepsis; and home monitoring, which allows more than 1,000 patients diagnosed with congestive heart failure to remain in their own homes with continuous monitoring.

Addressing doctor shortages
Mercy sees telemedicine as an urgently needed solution to the U.S. shortfall in physicians, projected by the Association of American Medical Colleges to reach 124,000 by 2025.

Dr. Thomas Hale, executive medical director of Mercy telehealth services, said in one of several video press releases on telemedicine posted on the Mercy website that programs like SafeWatch eICU can help overburdened physicians both in remote rural communities and in urban settings.

Dr. William Galli has had experience in rural and exurban hospitals. Now medical director of the critical care unit at Mercy Hospital in Washington, Mo., he recalls in a Mercy video his crushing workload when he was the only physician providing pulmonary critical care within a two-and-a-half hour drive of a Mercy hospital in Arkansas.

"I would say that four out of seven nights I was back at the hospital" to care for critical patients, he said. "My family life was very compromised." A telemedicine connection allowed specialty care to be directed remotely and "gave me my life back," he said.

Galli said if he had doubts about a diagnosis or questions about the best way to proceed, with telemedicine, he could "literally hit a button on the wall" and get a second opinion from another physician.

Hale said telemedicine "will have a significant impact by letting virtual physicians and nurses be the first point of triage and care for patients in the hospital emergency room or even at home.

"Mercy's virtual care frees up physicians while also attending to patients faster than before, and our specialists bring a level of expertise that would be impossible to share without telemedicine," he added.

Expanded services
Development of the virtual care center will cost approximately $50 million. When it is fully operational Mercy will offer more than 75 telemedicine-related services, including telepediatric cardiology, eNICU, teleradiology, ePharmacy, telestroke and teleperinatal services.

Mercy already has demonstrated success in its telemedicine offerings. SafeWatch, launched in September 2006, now monitors more than 450 beds in 28 ICUs over a five-state region, including non-Mercy facilities in South Carolina.

Those hospitals have reduced ICU mortality rates by 15 percent to 20 percent on average and reduced ICU length of stay by up to 15 percent, according to Mercy statistics. They also have demonstrated reduced code blues, significant reduction in ICU nurse turnover and improved patient satisfaction, Mercy said.

Britton said Mercy has "pioneered a telehealth plan that no longer limits advanced care because of age, illness or geography.

"We can deliver a higher level of care to more people, and the virtual care center is at the heart of it — providing care for today while also developing the health care of tomorrow," he said.

Mercy will preserve natural beauty of virtual care center site

When Lynn Britton, Mercy president and chief executive, first met with Forum Studio about the design of a new virtual care center on 40 undeveloped acres in Chesterfield, Mo., "I told them I was going to mourn the loss of every tree that had to be taken down on the site."

Chris Cedergreen, president and senior principal with Forum Studio, took those words to heart, and his company designed a four-story, 120,000-square-foot center that will keep the natural shading of mature trees and preserve a habitat for the deer, foxes, rabbits, squirrels and birds that populate the site.

Shannon Sock, Mercy executive vice president and chief financial officer, said the site in suburban St. Louis is "a beautiful piece of land" and "mostly untouched," including a ravine with a small lake, "plenty of wildlife and many trees over 100 years old."

Cedergreen said initial planning for the project looked at the site's terrain, topography, land use and tree coverage, with an eye toward integrating "into our planning, into our design and ultimately into our construction" a minimal impact on the environment and the maximum benefit of natural shading from mature trees on the south and west sides of the new building.

The company used technology that included scanning all the trees on the site by lasers carried on drones "to define where to place the building to minimize its impact," he added.

In other aspects of the design aimed at minimizing environmental impact, open space near the building will be returned to a native savanna prairie and storm water captured within parking areas will be purified and used in areas planted with native grass, perennials, trees and shrubs.

"I was so excited when (Forum) brought me their first plans," Britton said. "They found a way to preserve the natural beauty of this 40 acres in the heartland of America."

—Nancy Frazier O'Brien


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.