Telemedicine has been around longer than you think: Sentara celebrates 20 years of e-ICU


(WAVY) — Many of us have become familiar with telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We see doctors virtually via our cell phones or laptops, but the coronavirus didn’t even exist when Sentara launched the nation’s first “e-ICU” 20 years ago on Friday.

From a room at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, a group of nurses monitors 132 patients at seven different Sentara hospitals. Marcia McNelly was watching Williamsburg, Princess Anne and Obici when 10 On Your Side visited on Thursday.

“I’ve never even been to Obici hospital to even know where their ICU is,” McNelly told us.

But through high-resolution remote-controlled cameras, she can zoom in on a patient — she can even speak with the person and monitor their vital signs.

“We have to be responsive in a timely manner to a patient who is going bad,” e-ICU Medical Director, Dr. Steven Furman told  He has been with the program since it started 20 years ago.

“There are things obviously I cannot do. I cannot touch a patient, cannot do the procedures on critically ill patients that may be required,” he said.  However, treating patients virtually allows him to help more people.

“Critical care physicians are a somewhat rare breed and in order to continuously evaluate patients all across all the hospitals, we needed some way to leverage the expertise,” he said.

Since the e-ICU opened, Sentara estimates a 26-percent decrease in hospital deaths and a 17-percent decrease in the length of a hospital stay.

Furman said those decreases save money and can reduce a patient’s chance of getting a hospital-acquired infection.

It’s definitely helped during the coronavirus pandemic by reducing the amount of time staff must spend at patients’ bedsides.

Dozens of hospital systems now use this model — but Sentara was the first — bringing telemedicine to Hampton Roads long before most even dreamed of it.

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