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Tacoma's 'Virtual Hospital' Bustles With Caregivers, But No Patients

Parker Miles Blohm
A technician monitors patients at CHI Franciscan Health's clinical operations center -- or "virtual hospital" -- in Tacoma

Shannon Zawilski used to spend all day on her feet as a nurse in an intensive care unit, or ICU. 

Now, she spends her 12-hour shifts watching a screen.

She works in CHI Franciscan Health's virtual ICU in Tacoma, where she monitors the vital signs of dozens of the hospital system's most fragile patients. 

From her computer, she can check the levels of oxygen in their blood and read their medical charts.

With the click of a mouse, a camera can take her inside a patient's room.

Zawilski said she had to adjust to caring for patients who are in a different building or even a different county.

But she said she's come to appreciate the distance. 

At the bedside, she said, "You are constantly being pulled and constantly interrupted with phone calls and providers and, 'Hey help me, hey help me, hey help me.'"

But at her computer, she is "able to sit still and really broaden my perspective as far as the bigger picture with this patient.”

An Extra Set Of Eyes

That's the purpose of CHI Franciscan Health's clinical operations center -- or "virtual hospital" -- in Tacoma. Nurses and caregivers there provide an extra set of eyes for busy doctors and nurses on the ground.

CHI Franciscan Health's eight hospitals are scattered across Western Washington, but they're all tethered to this virtual hub.

While virtual technology is common in hospitals today, that centralized model is rare, said Matt Levi, who leads the clinical operations center.

"We are very much like a virtual hospital, where we have a leadership team, we have nursing structure with a director and managers," he said. "And so the whole unit is functioning very much in a cohesive way." 

Hearts More Than Hands

The virtual ICU is just one part of that unit. Another comprises virtual companions like Damaris Muita.

"We take care of patients with our hearts more than with our hands," she said.

From a computer station with six monitors, she watches over patients who need extra supervision, like those at risk of falling. 

Cameras give her live video feeds of the patients' rooms and allow her to chat with them. 

“One time we had a patient who was so confused, very impulsive, getting off the bed so often," she said. "And we were able to redirect him in a way that he felt loved, because he just wanted somebody to talk to him.”

This method of supervising patients can benefit the caregivers too, said Laura Meacham, who oversees the program.

"Care assistant work is very physical work," she said. "And sometimes care assistants have career-ending injuries just because of age. You know, they wear out as they get older. And so this is awesome because it gives them another option to extend their career."

You'd think watching monitors for eight hours day we be its own kind of challenge. But not for Muita. 

"It's not hard because it's that job that you do with your heart," she said. "And having the patient's safety in mind, you're always alert because you want to catch every little detail that is going on." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.