MercyOne announced last week it has signed an agreement with Hospital IQ, a Boston-based provider of predictive hospital operations software, to expand its use of artificial intelligence to improve coordination of patient access to care as Iowa’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and patient transfers surge.  

The new system provides an unprecedented level of emergency coordination between all of the state’s hospitals, led by an AI-based command system that MercyOne now operates from MercyOne Medical Center in Des Moines. In recent weeks, the state of Iowa experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases, seeing upwards of 5,000 cases per day. 

The AI-enabled platform assists MercyOne’s staff in coordinating admission referrals, monitoring bed availability and recommending placement decisions across the state for the new COVID-19 Hospital Transfer Line. MercyOne, along with more than 100 other hospitals and health systems around the country, is using Hospital IQ’s platform to know days in advance whether it will be running into capacity issues and plan accordingly. 

The command center and transfer line are a coordinated effort between the Iowa Department of Public Health, the Iowa National Guard and MercyOne. The one-call system will operate 24 hours a day with support from Iowa Guard members and will be available to all hospitals in the state, for both COVID-19 and other acute-care cases in which a hospital is having difficulty arranging a patient transfer. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office announced the new system on Dec. 9 during her COVID press briefing, joined by Bob Ritz, CEO of MercyOne. 

“We are delighted to bring this new comprehensive approach coordinating the care of patients who have a COVID-19 diagnosis, and acute-care patients who also need access to care,” Ritz said during the news conference. MercyOne has benefited from operating a hospital transfer system for years, and on average transfers more than 14,000 patients annually, he said. 

According to MercyOne, Reynolds provided funding for the statewide system from Iowa’s allocation from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The grant amount to MercyOne for the system was about $440,000, a spokesman from Reynolds’ office said. 

Driven by predictive workflows and analytics, Hospital IQ recommends the nearest hospital to admit each patient based on bed availability, the patient’s level of care needs and current location. Additionally, the Hospital IQ system prescribes preventive actions, including the best available hospital placement option to ensure hospitals do not become overloaded with COVID-19 transfers. 

MercyOne was approached by Reynolds’ office in November as the state began to experience bed shortages and transfer crunches across the state, said Diane Murphy, MercyOne’s Central Iowa regional director for transfers and placements. 

CommonSpirit Health, a parent health system of MercyOne, has been operating a statewide hospital transfer line for Nebraska for several months out of Omaha, Murphy said. MercyOne’s close relationship with CommonSpirit facilitated the conversation in creating a similar system for Iowa. 

Additionally, “we have a very strong collaboration with our other health systems, especially here in Polk County,” she said. “They work very closely together.” 

The new system expands on predictive tools that MercyOne already had in place with Hospital IQ. For more than five years, MercyOne Des Moines has leveraged Hospital IQ’s predictive software in its daily operations including perioperative services, inpatient capacity management and nurse staffing. 

Now that MercyOne has the required infrastructure, the command center and hospital transfer line will be an ongoing resource for the state beyond the pandemic, said Shawna Gunn, manager of operations for MercyOne Des Moines. “The vision is to have this framework built and the ability to quickly stand it up if needed in the future,” Gunn said. 

Murphy said the command center initially will be operated “at least through the beginning of 2021, dependent on the state’s needs.”  

MercyOne is among more than 100 hospitals or health systems nationally that Hospital IQ has worked with to build similar predictive systems, said Jason Harber, Hospital IQ’s executive vice president of operations. The company launched as a startup in Boston in 2013 and now has more than 70 employees across the country.

Aligning with existing electronic health record companies such as Epic and Cerner has enabled Hospital IQ to remain lean in terms of employee size, Harber said. “That really allows us to focus on our technical competencies — our ability to aggregate data, predict, and then do advanced analytics for these hospitals.” 

The technology is enabling unprecedented collaboration among health care providers, he said. 

“One of the biggest issues that some of these hospitals have is the fact that they don’t have enough nurses,” he said. 

“So one of the things that we are able to do for many of our customers is predict the number of staff needed and allow them to deploy their staff in the most effective way. So that really allows you to know where the patients are going to be to make sure that staff are scheduled and deployed in the right way to take care of those patients.”