Israel’s Sheba Medical Center has opened a virtual hospital in Moldova’s capital last week to enable medical personnel in Israel to treat Ukrainian refugees crossing the border using telemedicine technologies.
Doctors and medical professionals at Sheba use a number of telehealth technology solutions – many developed in Israel – to provide refugees with remote physical exams, prenatal ultrasounds, vital signs monitoring, blood samples and a variety of other assessments.
“We understand that the services we have developed are going to help us change the paradigm of humanitarian aid because what we can do is bring – through technology – all of Sheba’s experts to the field, even if they’re not there,” Dr. Galia Barkai, general manager of Sheba Medical Center’s virtual hospital, Sheba Beyond, tells NoCamels. Dr. Barkai is also chief of the pediatric infectious disease unit, head of telemedicine services, and was instrumental in leading Sheba’s first coronavirus telemedicine program in February 2020 before the pandemic swept the country.
“We do real medicine but with the help of virtual means,” she says, “We decided to create the virtual hospital with the mission of bringing Sheba’s expertise to patients wherever they are. , through technology.”
Sarit Lerner, chief technology officer of Sheba Beyond, flew to Moldova in early March with an initial delegation of 15 doctors, nurses and paramedics from the Israeli volunteer emergency response organization United Hatzalah.
This is the first time that Sheba Beyond has deployed its virtual hospital in a conflict zone and is currently working on ways to support those who remained in Ukraine during the war.
“We felt we had a moral obligation to provide the technology and expertise of Sheba’s world-class clinicians and specialists to be on the ground helping these refugees,” Lerner said in a statement provided by Sheba, “I see the mission as a true representation of Sheba’s core values.We have a responsibility to use the information and capabilities we possess to help others in need and to provide humanitarian assistance to people everywhere.
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“They are now opening a field hospital,” Dr Barkai told NoCamels, referring to the announcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Health which said it had sent an Israeli medical delegation to Ukraine to establish the space, which will be operated by Sheba and Clalit Health Services, “And we are providing them with the additional things that they don’t have in the field, clinicians who are expert in technology, so that’s the value we bring to this mission.
Dr Barkai says the group treated pregnant women, elderly patients and sick children who faced exhaustion, bad weather and injuries as they fled to the border.
“We have had pregnant women who obviously after moving for a long time are very tired and a bit traumatized as well. They weren’t feeling well and we were able to reassure them that the ultrasound was normal and the baby was fine. We checked heart rate and fluids and everything. We have seen several patients with wound infections or soft tissue infections. Sometimes frostbite because it is really very cold there. We have seen elderly patients with diabetes that is not well controlled. And there are a lot of people and children coughing,” says Dr. Barkai.
A video hookup is obviously not a physical encounter, Dr. Barkai says, but it simulates one and it feels like the real deal. “[The patients] really touched that they got to see Sheba experts and talk to them and ask them questions and raise their concerns,” she adds, “We even had patients who were there until yesterday and who are now airborne en route to Israel already. We spoke with them about continuing care there,” she adds.
“So yes, you can make a good connection.”
Among the best Israeli telemedicine technologies currently used by Sheba in this virtual hospital are: Tyto Care, a telehealth company that has developed wearable devices that examine the heart, lungs, skin, ears, throat and abdomen , as well as measure body temperature; Biobeat Medical Technologies, a company that monitors vital signs and displays them in real time on the remote doctor’s dashboard; Pulsenmore, a company that has developed a portable prenatal ultrasound device, takes point-of-care images for analysis by Sheba obstetricians/gynecologists in Israel; and i-STAT, a company that developed a portable blood analyzer from Abbott Labs that provides lab-quality diagnostics in minutes.
“Sheba Beyond and our ability to bring cutting-edge technology and medical expertise anywhere in the world has been spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the need for quality telehealth services,” said Dr. Barkai in a statement, “Throughout the pandemic, we have been able to test the effectiveness of our technologies to treat patients remotely. This has allowed us to provide these crucial telehealth technologies to this humanitarian mission and help to supporting dedicated first responders in Ukraine.
Sheba at the forefront of telemedicine
Dr. Galia Barkai has become the head of a new coronavirus telemedicine program launched by Sheba Medical Center in February 2020 that is believed to be the first of its kind in the world. The program, which was then being tested on Israeli patients suspected of carrying the contagious respiratory virus, aimed to create an innovative care center for patients under remote care and monitoring.
At the time, Dr. Barkai said she envisioned that if and when the virus arrived in Israel, there would only be a limited number of isolation rooms. Less severe patients could be monitored outside the hospital with telemedicine apps and communicate via video while staying comfortably at home and reducing risk in the hospital.
According to Dr. Barkai, Sheba had already done telemedicine related projects and a few clinics that worked with telemedicine. But there were also a lot of regulatory and technological challenges and doctors and patients were not ready for that. Then COVID-19 came along, and “we did some things like the whole world did with telemedicine but we took a step forward,” she explains.
Staff used telemedicine technologies to treat hospitalized patients to reduce physical contact between clinicians and patients. “We have used technology to turn many of our outpatient clinics into virtual clinics,” she adds.
After the first wave of COVID, “we realized that not only have we changed…the world has changed,” says Dr. Barkai.