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'Virtual' Health Teams Boost Patient Care

Connecting a variety of specialists by computer, phone enhances outcomes, study finds

FRIDAY, May 2 (HealthDay News) -- The use of "virtual" interdisciplinary health-care teams linked by phone, fax and e-mail improves the care of adults with chronic health problems, according to a U.S. study.

Patients who received this type of coordinated care -- which includes physicians, pharmacists, dieticians, social workers and other professionals -- required fewer emergency department visits than those who didn't receive it, according to researchers at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago.

They developed a pilot project called Virtual Integrated Practice (VIP), which links physician practices with teams of other health-care professionals to coordinate care for patients with diabetes.

Over two years, higher risk diabetic patients who received VIP care made fewer trips to the emergency department than similar patients who didn't receive this kind of care. The patients under VIP care also reported better understanding of how to use their medications.

The study also found that physicians who were part of the VIP teams said they were better informed about how their patients were doing between visits than doctors who weren't part of virtual teams.

"The VIP study showed the feasibility of interdisciplinary teams as a practical solution to many of the challenges seen in primary care geriatric practices," principal investigator Dr. Steven K. Rothschild, an associate professor in the departments of family medicine and preventive medicine at Rush, said in a prepared statement.

"For the most physically frail patients, the intervention meant fewer trips to the emergency department. The VIP model also provides a replicable road map for implementing the Medical Home concept in solo and small group practices that care for frail elders," Rothschild said.

The study was slated to be presented Friday at the American Geriatrics Society annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.

While coordinated care can benefit older adults with multiple chronic illnesses, 60 percent of primary-care physician practices in the United States are small and unlikely to have the resources to establish and maintain interdisciplinary health-care teams, according to background information in a news release about the study. Virtual teams may be an option for those small practices.

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-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Geriatric Society, news release, April 24, 2008

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