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How COVID-19 improved the emergency room for patients

Posted at 10:47 PM, Jul 05, 2021

A trip to the emergency room is getting more high-tech since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"How many do we have in the waiting room?" asks Dr. Nick Tsipis, associate medical director at Swedish Medical Center ER.

"Three, four, five," a nurse counts off. 

Right now, when a patient comes into the ER, it can go slow. They meet a triage nurse, who enters them into the system and gets their vitals. Then they wait and wait.

"They're kind of just stacked up in line of what order they come in, with the exception of folks who are very, very sick, who meet certain criteria, are taken straight back to a room into the emergency room," Tsipis said. 

But at Swedish Medical Center near Denver, Colorado, technology is speeding up that process. Enter: Virtual Triage. 

They set up a demo to show us how it works. Now, when a patient comes into the emergency room, a doctor can join the check-in process on an iPad. 

"Here is that camera with the patient and we're exchanging a story here back and forth between the two of us, while at the same time on this computer, I have access to all of the patient's records," Tsipis said.

In the back, a doctor listens in, immediately evaluating and acting, sometimes ordering labs, tests, X-rays, sometimes pain medications. Right now, staff mostly uses it during their busiest times. 

"We can still save, on average, about 10 minutes. And that's just at the start of the visit," he said.

Those 10 minutes could make all the difference. Research shows in 2021 fewer, but sicker, patients are coming to the ER. 

Virtual triage came at a time for Swedish where they, like so many other hospitals across the country, were trying to keep up with the large numbers of COVID-19 patients coming in. While at the same time, trying to make the ER a little less scary for patients who were avoiding it.

Many didn't want to come to the hospital because they didn't want to come into contact with the coronavirus.

The virtual triage has been so successful, that now HCA, their parent company, which owns more than 188 hospitals around the country, is also rolling it out in their ERs, too. 

We first met ER doc Nick Tsipis 15 months ago. Then, he showed us how doctors were leveraging a new secure conferencing technology called Zoom," which was just catching on, to visit with patients. 

"In some ways, I can't believe that 15 months have flown by, and in other ways, I can't believe it's only been 15 months," he said.

Since then, COVID-19’s kicked in the telehealth acceptance door, he says, paving the way for changes like this.

For those patients not ready to take the tech jump, they can still sign in the old fashion way.

One thing isn’t changing though: Virtual triage won’t replace the doctors who decide what’s wrong and how to treat the patient. 

"I love seeing patients in person. I'm not trying to give that up," he said.

This story originally reported by Lindsey Theis on