- A Michigan hospital is using mHealth sensors attached to a patient’s bed to remotely monitor vital signs, and executives see a future for the telehealth platform that goes beyond the success they’re seeing in taking care of COVID-19 patients.

“It means a lot to our staff and our patients,” says Nancy Riffel, MSA, BN, RN, the patient services manager at Covenant HealthCare. “I definitely see a lot of potential going forward. It adds another element to our toolbox for us to assess our patients.

Long before the pandemic, health systems were experimenting with smart bed technology to improve in-patient care and reduce the stress on staff. Some saw this platform as an in-hospital remote patient monitoring platform, capable of allowing nurses to manage several beds or entire units from a central nurse’s station.

Covenant, a 643-bed hospital in Saginaw, MI, had installed the telemedicine technology, developed by Hill-Rom, prior to the coronavirus pandemic in its 24-bed medical pulmonary unit. The platform uses sensors in a mat placed under the mattress to keep track of a patient’s heart and respiratory rate, triggering alerts if either vital sign trends above or below established parameters.

Riffel said the telehealth platform helped hospital staff keep track of patients with a range of pulmonary issues, including COPD, asthma and pneumonia, without running in and out of the room constantly to make sure things were fine. The alerts, keyed to audio-visual alarms outside the room, allowed staff to act quickly when a patient went into distress.

Then COVID-19 hit.

The hospital, bracing for a surge of critical care patients, converted the pulmonary care unit to a COVID-19 unit, and adjusted the sensors to track breathing and heart rates affected by the virus. The unit was quickly filled to capacity.

According to Riffel, the telehealth platform gives staff some relief in knowing they can track patients without having to go through the process of putting on PPE and stepping into the room, thus improving care management and reducing the risk of infection for providers.

And the platform is working. Riffel says Code Blues, which would happen every now and then in the past, haven’t occurred at all with the telehealth system in place. And the sensors have helped staff identify at least six COVID-19 patients in distress, enabling them to transfer the patients down to the ICU for intubation within an hour.

“We’ve learned a lot,” says Riffel, who sees value for the technology in other parts of the hospital, from surgery to post-op to regular in-patient care. Any opportunity to continuously monitor a patient without actually attaching anything to that patient, she says, is a benefit not only to overworked staff but to patient engagement as well.

“I’d measure as much as I could,” she says, ticking off temperature, blood pressure and pulse oximetry as examples. “The more the merrier.”

Riffel also see the potential for the technology to integrate with the EMR, so that trending vital signs could be incorporated into a patient’s medical record and compared with medications and other ongoing treatments. She’d also like to see the system integrate with mobile devices, so that the patient’s care providers could get alerts no matter where they were located.

And there are unexpected – and poignant – benefits. Riffel says the telehealth platform alerted one nurse to a patient that was in palliative care and in distress. Realizing the patient was nearing the end of her life, and with no family nearby, the nurse went into the room and sat at the patient’s bedside as she passed away.

“It means a lot to us that we could do that,” Riffel says.