Patient sitters are a relatively unknown yet important part of healthcare, watching at-risk patients so staff members like nurses to focus on more pressing medical duties. Due to limited budgets and labor shortage of sitters, hospitals and other medical facilities are turning to technological solutions for answers. One of these, virtual patient sitters, is today’s topic. We cover what the technology is, how it works, and four major advantages over flesh-and-blood sitters.

Virtual Patient Sitter – What Is It?

Virtual patient sitting or telesitting can be described as a form of remote patient monitoring. A trained staff member keeps an eye on patients deemed “at risk” through remote continuous video monitoring technology. These staff members are known as virtual patient sitters, virtual patient observers, or telesitters. 

Multiple patients can be watched in this manner. And depending on the setup, patients may also see who the telesitter is via a medical grade monitor. Most setups allow staff to speak and respond to patient requests (“I need water.”) and summon aid if at-risk behavior is noted and/or engaged. Examples include the patient is falling or pulling out their IV tubes. More advanced telesitting setups allow monitoring of patient vitals. 

Virtual Patient Sitting System and How It Works

Virtual patient sitting systems work via two-way wireless audio and video feeds. Most are composed of a wheeled IV-like pole with an attached portable camera unit. Others may look like a workstation on wheels. Wall-mounted cameras and speakers are also common. Regardless, all are placed in the patient’s room with the camera and microphone aimed at them. 

The virtual patient technicians are located elsewhere in the hospital or medical facility. From this telesitter “hub,” they monitor the audio and video feeds usually on one screen. Between 12-57 patients can be observed at a time depending on the system.

Patients can be divided into different at-risk categories to watch out for. At-risk for fall is a common one. Other categories include critical condition and discharge.  

Techs can communicate with patients via the telesitter’s speaker system. If they notice the patient is engaging in risky behavior, they issue a verbal warning while simultaneously alerting nearby staff. 

Telesitter capabilities have advanced as the healthcare industry uses them to fill gaps like sitter shortage. Some are multilingual with set commands like “Do you need help?” in the patient’s native language. Others come equipped with high-definition, 360-degree view cameras with pan, tilt, zoom, and night vision capabilities.

Four Advantages of Virtual Patient Observation

There are many circumstances in medicine where providers and caregivers do not want to leave a patient alone. The patient may:

  • Be experiencing confusion and agitation
  • Present a fall risk
  • Engage in self-harm

Adult rehabilitation, behavioral health, ICU, post-op, and long-term care are just a few of the settings where medical staff may want a patient under some form of observation. 

Normally, the patient would be assigned a sitter, a person who keeps an eye on them as well as provide companionship. Hospitals call this “specialling.” Increasingly, healthcare organizations are turning to telesitting systems. Four major advantages include:

Preventing Falls

Falls in healthcare facilities are quite common. This is especially true among the elderly, with the CDC reporting 36 million a year suffering from falls. 

Broken bones, cuts, and internal bleeding are just some of the injuries suffered in a fall. Patients can be permanently maimed or even killed depending on the damage.

On-site staff or hired caregivers, acting as patient sitters, were originally assigned to watch and prevent such falls. Medical staff like LVNs and RNs may also be pulled into sitting duties as well. Virtual patient sitters are increasingly being used to provide continuous oversight. Studies on their use have shown them to be effective, with one showing falls decreasing by 51 percent across 11 hospitals

Monitor Patient Vitals

Virtual patient sitting is usually thought to be monitoring patients to respond to any potential at-risk behavior. However, telesitting can also be applied to simply monitor data from the patient’s medical devices and equipment. 

A perfect example are newborns and other premature infants found in a hospital’s NICU. These patients obviously cannot communicate their conditions with the medical staff and personnel milling about. So virtual patient sitters watch them and their life-support systems 24 / 7. They can immediately alert the unit if the patient, either through behavior or via the devices, is showing medical distress like a life-threatening Code Blue.  

Other non-patient interactions by virtual observation may include:

  • Keeping eye out on a patient’s telemetry 
  • Monitoring blood pressure of high-risk patients
  • Observing those requiring frequent suctioning

Off-site providers can use the patient observation technologies to guide on-site teams. While watching through a camera, they could direct them, for example, how to stabilize a patient using items from a crash cart

Protects Staff

Human patient sitters are at risk of infection when in a patient’s room during the hours of their shift. Or they may put the patient’s health at risk if carrying anything contagious.  

Virtual patient sitting minimizes the risk. Patients can be watched without exposure to pathogens. They also know they’re being observed so they won’t feel as isolated. 

Medical staff like nurses are also protected as they monitor patients and ventilators remotely. And when they do have to interact with the patient directly, they’ll use less PPE which saves on the scarce resource. 

Less Costly

Patient sitters support patients who are at risk of falling, self-harm, or engage in other unhealthy and/or injurious behavior. While an important part of healthcare, patient sitters are costly both financially and in manpower. 

One study showed patient sitters can cost hospitals between $500,000 each year to a staggering $2 million while others place the figure higher at $3 million annually. Most of these costs come directly from the healthcare organization’s budget as sitters are normally not reimbursed by insurance companies or federal programs.

Virtual patient sitters can be 30 percent less expensive than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. UC San Diego Health reported saving $2.5 million over a two year period using telesitters. 

Other reasons for use of virtual patient sitters include:

  • Elopement Risk  – Patient is prone to wander from room or healthcare facility 
  • Isolation Room – To observe highly infectious patients or highly susceptible to disease
  • Self-Injury/Tube Pulling/Substance Abuse
  • Suicide Risk 
  • Virtual Rounding – Rounding providers can check on patients remotely either from the central virtual observer room or on a device like a medical tablet.

Closing Thoughts

Patient sitting, which has a caregiver or even medical staff member watching an at-risk patient in their room, is an important part of healthcare. It’s expensive, though, both financially and in manpower which is limited especially in hospitals. A virtual patient sitter allows the hospital to monitor and interact with numerous patients simultaneously which reduces costs while freeing up staff for more vital duties. 

Contact an expert at Cybernet if you’re interested in learning more about 3D printing in healthcare, and why its benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Join the conversation and connect with us on this and other relevant topics – Follow us Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin