Unalaska’s clinic will soon become the first community health center in Alaska to implement an eICU program.
That's a type of telemedicine technology that will connect health care providers at Iliuliuk Family and Health Services with intensive care providers in Anchorage.
Officially, the local clinic is a community health center, which means it’s only supposed to provide primary care and some urgent care. But the reality in Unalaska is a little different.
With the island’s isolated location and unpredictable weather, the clinic often has to provide emergency care for patients until they can be medevaced off the island. Clinic providers will use the eICU to stabilize and monitor patients until they are able to leave.
While patients are in Unalaska, their vitals, heart monitoring, and ventilation settings can be sent directly to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Providence ICU staff will work side-by-side with local nurses and providers to treat patients in real time. The technology even includes video monitoring, so Providence staff can see exactly what’s going on from 800 miles away.
According to Medical Director Ann Nora Ehret, that means better care for patients until it’s safe to move them off the island.
"For us, this is about having that expert right there and accessible, whether it's an intensive care nurse or if we need the level of an intensive care doctor," said Ehret. ICU nurses will support Unalaska’s nurses, medics, and medical assistants with complicated procedures and help monitor critical care medications.
Ehret said that doesn't mean the clinic is becoming an intensive care unit, and it's not a substitute for an emergency physician or practitioner. She said those positions are difficult to fill in rural areas, and Unalaska is no exception. The eICU will instead connect critical care nurses and doctors in Anchorage with local clinic staff .
Ehret said the eICU will also help Unalaska's providers, who can breathe easier knowing they have the resources of a bigger hospital behind them.
"As rural practitioners, we tend to have a lot more comfort with collaboration," said Ehret. "So I see this as part of the team approach to our patients, who are presenting to us with critical care needs 24/7."
At nearly $100,000, the clinic's eICU was funded by a federal grant. But outgoing Executive Director Eileen Conlon Scott said the program could start a trend for other community health centers in rural Alaska.
“We have other CHCs that are very interested in this," said Conlon Scott. "As soon as we’re up and running, there’ll be a few people flying in who want to see it because there's an interest for them as well. They're just as rural.”
Unalaska's clinic is finishing setting up the eICU now. The system should go online in mid-September.