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Idaho Gets Region's First 'Virtual Hospital' to Serve Rural Residents

St. Luke's Health System
Virtual health centers are popping up across the country to connect with people in rural communities.

With the opening of the region's first "virtual hospital," some Idahoans' health care needs could be met with the click of a button. Saint Luke's Health System says its virtual-care center in Boise is now up and running, eliminating the distance rural Idahoans have to travel to receive care. 

Krista Stadler, senior director of Saint Luke's telehealth services, said the goal of the program is to address the health care disparities members of rural communities face because of the distance to hospitals and clinics. 

She said patients can be referred to the center for a variety of needs.

"The virtual care center then houses nurses, doctors and other clinicians - like social work, diabetic educators and dietitians - to use two-way audio-video technology, or sometimes secure text-messaging, to reach out and meet the needs of the patients when and where they need it," Stadler said.

Stadler said the center will be able to connect people with specialty and even emergency room doctors. She noted the virtual care center isn't designed to replace doctors, but it could replace the need for patients to travel long distances for follow-ups after surgery, and also help folks manage chronic illnesses so they don't have to run to a clinic every time they experience a symptom.

Stadler said because Saint Luke's in Boise has one of the only children's hospitals in the state, many families drive from outlying areas to have a surgery or procedure performed, which often requires family members to take time off of work. Families still will have to travel for the surgery but can stay home for followups afterward. 

Stadler said there aren't any geographical limits to this kind of care.

"If we have a connection, whether it's an internet connection - sometimes even satellites will work as well - we can figure out a way to make sure that these patients who have a choice to be in a rural community and make that choice have access to convenient, low-cost and quality safe care," she said.

The center eventually will have 350 medical professionals operating it around the clock.