'Flipping the model' for ID care: UPMC telemedicine company's Dr. Rima Abdel-Massih

Rima Abdel-Massih, MD, brings extensive clinical and research experience with infectious diseases to her role as co-founder and CMO of UPMC's telemedicine company Infectious Disease Connect.

A board-certified infectious disease specialist, Dr. Abdel-Massih is also director of tele-ID services at Pittsburgh-based UPMC. The program, which helps provide ID expertise to medical facilities that lack resources, has grown to serve 13 hospitals since its initial launch six years ago.

Dr. Abdel-Massih's interests are in ID fields such as infections in solid organ transplant recipients, antibacterial resistance and infections related to artificial heart and lung devices. After earning her medical degree from Lebanese University in Beirut, Lebanon, Dr. Abdel-Massih completed her residency and fellowship training at Newark, N.J.-based St. Michael's Medical Center as well as additional transplant ID fellowship training at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Here, Dr. Abdel-Massih discusses how ID Connect is using telemedicine to help improve care for patients with infectious diseases. 

Editor's Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What inspired you to start ID Connect?

Dr. Rima Abdel-Massih: UPMC's infectious diseases program first began six years ago after a community hospital came to us and asked for ID expertise to help care for its patients. Our initial tele-ID service was very well received and the word spread from there. We soon realized that there is a major need for ID expertise in community hospitals and other healthcare facilities. There was also a need for assistance with antimicrobial stewardship program and infection prevention and control expertise.

The tele-ID services grew rapidly and it was clear we were making a difference for patients, hospitals and communities. So, we went to UPMC leadership and UPMC Enterprises for support to create ID Connect and extend our expertise further. 

Q: How can telemedicine help improve patients' experiences?

RAM: When someone presents with an infection, the time to implement appropriate antibiotic therapy can be very critical for how the patient responds and whether complications will arise from the infections. At facilities where ID expertise is not available, patients who do not respond to treatment are often transferred to larger centers, which sometimes happens too late. The need for ID expertise is when the patient presents for care and also if they do not respond well to initial therapy. This is where we flip the model and ID Connect can intervene and prescribe the right therapy as soon as possible, order the appropriate diagnostic testing and change therapy as needed.

Telemedicine also benefits patients by allowing them to stay in their community, close to their home. They don't have to travel far distances where they're going to be lying in a hospital bed by themselves. That's very important; you need that support when dealing with an infection or an illness. We've received a lot of positive feedback from patients thanking us for being able to treat them where they are and not have them transferred out. 

Q: How can telemedicine help improve on-site physicians' experiences? 

RAM: Onsite physicians who do not have ID expertise often struggle to identify the best therapy for their patients. With our involvement, non-ID physicians become more comfortable managing and retaining patients presenting with infections. Our tele-ID services also provide educational opportunities for onsite physicians through our antimicrobial stewardship program. This helps guide local providers on appropriate antibiotics to use in different settings and educates them on drug resistant organisms that are a problem in their institution and how to avoid the emergence and spread of these organisms.

Q: What types of clinicians make up ID Connect?

RAM: ID Connect is staffed by a leading academic group of experts in the ID field. We currently have 10 board-certified ID physicians, increasing to 12 this summer, and we are recruiting a few more this year. A major differentiating characteristic of our group is that many of us have an additional sub-specialty expertise in infectious diseases, such as HIV care, transplant-related infections, fungal infections and resistant organism infections.

Q: How do you expect ID connect to grow in the next three to five years? 

RAM: Our near-term growth now is focused on the many small, under 300-bed hospitals, especially those in non-metropolitan areas where we know there's a shortage of ID expertise. We're also going to be moving to the outpatient side to ensure that any needs for infection care, whether inpatient or outpatient or in the post acute care setting, are met. 

To participate in future Becker's Q&As, contact Jackie Drees at jdrees@beckershealthcare.com.

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