Patients can stay home with pets, loved ones at Illinois' largest hospital-at-home program

On a recent day, Mary Conrad showed off the hospital inside her Illinois home: a touchscreen tablet, an IV pole, a box of medical supplies.

Her daughter, Valerie Conrad, a 36-year-old with Down syndrome, sat on a couch nearby. Her living room served as her hospital room. Nurses monitored Valerie's cellulitis 24-7 from a digital command center a dozen miles away.

"I love it. I love it," Mary Conrad told Becker's of the hospital-at-home program from Peoria-based OSF HealthCare. "For one thing, Valerie is afraid to be in the hospital after having COVID two years ago. ... And the nurses are taking care of her. I don't have to do much taking care of her, except being a mother."

Started amid the pandemic, OSF's Digital Hospital program is now the largest in the state of Illinois. It currently serves patients with 26 conditions within a 30-mile radius of Peoria, with plans to expand to Rockford, Ill., soon. More than 400 patients have taken part.

"I love it," Jennifer Junis, BSN, RN, senior vice president of digital health for OSF OnCall, said of the program. "I spent the bulk of my career in rural healthcare, so I feel like it meshed really well. Because I was constantly looking for ways to innovate and look for how to use scarce resources, how to get resources to rural communities."

Patients have said they love being with their pets. One patient slept past a 7 o'clock physician appointment one morning ("You don't oversleep in a hospital, right? I mean, you don't get much sleep at all," Ms. Junis said.) A husband and wife have been patients together.

The program has among the highest HCAHPS patient satisfaction scores in the system, Ms. Junis said. That will take more buy-in from payers for these types of programs to truly scale, she said. That includes CMS, which has yet to permanently expand hospital-at-home coverage following the pandemic.

Ms. Junis even tried out the program as a mock patient when it started, being transported from OSF's simulation center, which has a pretend hospital room and home with all the Digital Hospital technology set up, to her real home (she alerted her neighbors ahead of time that it was only a drill).

Before launching, OSF leaders visited Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., which had one of the first hospital-at-home programs. OSF now advises other systems rolling out similar projects, including some large academic health systems in Chicago.

At OSF OnCall's downtown Peoria headquarters, a four-story, 100,000-square-foot building that used to house offices for Caterpillar, healthcare providers in scrubs stream in and out, hopping between patients' homes and their computer monitors. The facility's roughly 400 employees also operate such digital programs as virtual nursing, ICUs and hospitalists.

Mary Conrad, of Pekin, Ill., said the program works well for people, like her, who aren't particularly tech savvy. To make a virtual call, she just picks up the tablet; no typing or touching necessary. Same goes for answering a call.

Nurses visit a few times a day. A pharmacist calls to make sure Valerie is taking her medications correctly. Patients even get three meals a day delivered.

"I would recommend this to anybody," Mary Conrad said. "You're never really comfortable in a hospital, but who isn't comfortable in their own home?"

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