Health System Starts Infectious Disease Telemedicine Company

Marcia Frellick

May 29, 2019

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) has formed an infectious disease (ID) telemedicine company to help hospitals nationwide struggling with a shortage of physicians who specialize in ID.

The company, called Infectious Disease (ID) Connect, will initially focus on serving the more than 4000 smaller acute care hospitals (fewer than 300 beds) in the United States, providing ID experts from UPMC full time or part time to help hospitals' existing staff.

"These smaller facilities face an especially difficult time recruiting and retaining already scarce ID specialists," Rima Abdel-Massih, MD, chief medical officer for ID Connect, said in a press release.

The company intends to help hospitals improve outcomes while reducing the number of transfers to tertiary centers in order to keep more patients in their home communities.

"With the growing threat of drug-resistant organisms and costly government penalties for health care-associated infections (HAIs), it has never been more critical for hospitals to properly diagnose, treat, and prevent such infections," Abdel-Massih added.

Abdel-Massih, director of tele-ID services at UPMC, and John Mellors, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UPMC and University of Pittsburgh, cofounded the company.

UPMC hospitals have been providing ID telemedicine services to 10 UPMC and five non-UPMC hospitals in Pennsylvania and surrounding states for 5 years, and leaders say they have seen reduced HAIs, better outcomes, and less misuse of antibiotics.

Understaffed Specialty

Increasing infectious disease threats combined with a current shortage of experts and a reduced pipeline of both experts and new antibiotics are fueling a heightened concern nationwide.

In a 2017 article in Clinical Infectious Diseases, Rochelle Walensky and coauthors wrote, "[A]kin to the dwindling pipeline of new antibiotics, the numbers of trainees entering ID has steeply declined since 2011. In 2015, while the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the spread of Zika in the Western hemisphere were overlapping global crises, fewer than half of US ID fellowships filled their incoming classes."

Between the 2009–2010 and 2016–2017 fellowship matches, the number of adult ID programs that filled all positions dropped by 41%, they write.

Medscape's annual compensation report this year again shows the specialty is among the lowest paid.

David Zynn, president of ID Connect, added that HAIs affect 5% to 10% of patients and cost hospitals more than $40 billion a year.

Zynn said that initially the company will be staffed with UPMC ID physicians who will work both for ID Connect and the health system, but eventually will add staff as it expands into new markets.

"As diagnosing and treating infectious diseases and 'superbugs' become increasingly complex, having access to infectious disease experts will be essential for every health care facility," he said, in the press release.

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