Mercy Fort Smith officially opened its newest $5.3 million clinic on Cliff Drive Thursday (Aug. 21) and with it, took the next step forward in its efforts to expand the use of technology in medicine, but may not be enough to close the gap on a doctor shortage.
Matt Keep, chief operations officer of Mercy Fort Smith, said the new Cliff Drive clinic was essentially "plug and play ready."
"The rooms were built to be big enough to accommodate that type of setup and all the cabling and wiring is there for it. So we can go live on that when that becomes developed and available. We won't have to do any retrofitting or anything like that down the road. It's ready to go now."
Having rooms ready for telemedicine will bring new specialties to Fort Smith patients through the cooperative efforts of Mercy Health System hospitals across Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma using Mercy's new Virtual Care Center under construction near St. Louis.
The care center, expected to be complete in 2015, brings doctors of all backgrounds into Fort Smith and other communities to treat a variety of ailments, Mercy Primary Care Medical Director Dr. Sean Baker said.
"They can use the data, they can work in conjunction with other physicians in that location to get the data they need to help make a diagnosis for that patient. Sometimes that patient may have to travel outside of the community for service (such as surgery), but when they get back to this community, they can revisit with that doctor after that service. So virtual care allows us to bring things to Fort Smith that Fort Smith probably never have access to otherwise. They can do it right here in this clinic," Baker explained.
As for how telemedicine works, Baker said essentially doctors use technology to see what is happening with a patient's body in real time.
"We have the ability to listen to hearts from a distance and digitally record that sound. We have the ability to send information electronically, like ultrasounds. Even looking in someone's ears can be done remotely. It's very neat how that technology works. It doesn't take away the need for that person to person contact, but with consultation and working as a team, we can achieve those needs with virtual medicine."
Baker and Keep were frank when discussing the doctor shortage Fort Smith has experienced, with Keep going so far as to say that even with the addition of a clinic on Dallas Street last year, the new Cliff Drive clinic officially opened for business Thursday and a clinic under construction at Waldron and Free Ferry Roads, it would not be enough to alleviate the region's doctor shortage.
"The best way to get access even to our specialists or those virtual specialists is by having a robust primary care base. You're going to have to do that. And we don't right now in our region. It's not just Fort Smith but all around us, as well. We're making a dent now, but you look back at the past maybe 10 years we probably had more doctors retiring or leaving than were actually coming in," Keep said.
"I think what we're doing now is we're probably adding more than we're losing now. So I guess we've got positive momentum. Is it enough to close the gap? Probably not. That's probably why virtual care and these other things are going to have to come into play. But we're certainly making a dent in it."
Even though the healthcare system in the region is underserved due to shortages, it is becoming more efficient thanks to technology, Baker said.
The primary way it is able to be more efficient is thanks to the use of electronic medical records, which centralizes a patient's records for the entire Mercy system in a single cloud-based system that updates immediately as procedures are completed, medications are prescribed or action is needed for a patient.
"Before we had this, you would have to wait on faxes or phone calls and sometimes that wouldn't happen that day. Sometimes it might not happen for a couple of days before you got the information and knew someone had been seen somewhere else. Sometimes it wasn't until you saw them in followup,” Baker said.
The improved technologies and efficiencies have allowed Mercy to improve its patient capacity to higher and higher levels, as well.
At the Dallas Street clinic, for example, Keep said it was seeing about 1,500 patients per month when it opened last year. Today, it sees 3,000 patients per month. The hospital itself is also seeing record patient load necessitating the need for technology to improve care and efficiency that will be on full display for patients using the clinic and its 24 exam rooms on Cliff Drive. And he said that would continue with investment in additional clinics and technology.
The Cliff Drive location is equipped for between eight and 10 providers and houses three family medicine providers, as well as an internal medicine specialist.