CHESTERFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- A suburban St. Louis hospital chain is preparing to begin construction of a virtual care center that seeks to address a shortage of doctors -- particularly specialists -- by offering telemedicine to underserved regions of the country.
Mercy Health is breaking ground Tuesday on a $50 million four-story, 120,000-square-foot telemedicine center in Chesterfield, Missouri. Plans call for the center to open next year with nearly 300 physicians, nurses and support staff.
The center will deliver medical care all day, every day, through audio, video and data connections. It will provide medical care for people in remote rural areas and underserved inner cities, saving them the hassle of a trip to the city.
Mercy, the nation's sixth-largest Catholic health care system, operates 32 hospitals in four states -- Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas. But CEO Lynn Britton said the telemedicine center won't be limited to those regions.
In fact, officials at Mercy believe that within five years, the center will serve 3 million virtual customers. They say the center will also play an important role in telemedicine research and training.
Mercy has been involved in telemedicine since 2006. Britton said the time was right for the new center that brings the technology together in one place.
"The technology has matured to the point where it's affordable and easy to use," Britton said. "I think patients and consumers are used to managing much of their lives in a digital way. It improves the access to patients in lots of ways."
Nearly one in five Americans lives in a region designated as having a shortage of primary care physicians. Experts say the number of doctors entering the field won't likely meet demands of an aging population with more chronic illness.
The doctor shortage is acute in rural areas. A 2010 report by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services showed that only 18 percent of Missouri's primary care physicians were in rural areas, and specialists are even harder to come by.
"Most rural populations have to travel excessive distances to obtain many types of specialty care, such as cardiology, rheumatology and endocrinology services," the report stated.
The telemedicine center will provide a variety of programs for patients. Among them: SafeWAtch eICU will allow Mercy doctors to monitor critical-care patients in remote hospitals; the Telestroke program will allow Mercy doctors to help diagnose those with stroke-like symptoms.
Bob Quinlan, a 75-year-old retired manufacturing executive from Rogers, Arkansas, came to St. Louis in August for a procedure to correct atrial fibrillation, an irregular and often rapid heart rate. Rather than make the nearly seven-hour return trip for a checkup, Quinlan drove to the Mercy hospital in his hometown. There, monitors allowed his St. Louis specialist to see how Quinlan's heart was functioning, even listen to his heartbeat through a stethoscope connected to a computer.
"It took an hour out of my life," Quinlan said. "It would have taken a day-and-a-half at least to go to St. Louis."