A vision for virtual health care

The unrecognizable man consults a female doctor via telemedicine on his digital tablet. He is sitting in his living room at home.

A new startup accelerator in the College of Nursing positions Marquette to help lead the growth of digital care. 

By Tracy Staedter

In early 2020, nurse practitioner Dr. Jennie Peters, clinical assistant professor, was working part time for a family practice in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and also managing her own medical weight-loss business. Then COVID-19 came along. The family clinic shut down that March, and Peters found herself thrust into the world of virtual care to continue seeing her weight-loss patients. It was total chaos, she says. Not only did Peters need to find a video platform, she also needed to set up systems that managed scheduling, insurance, billing and electronic medical records. Questions started to pile up, and she had a difficult time finding answers.

“I was being thrown into this, and there really weren’t a lot of resources,” Peters says.

Peters was far from the only clinician making the switch to video. By May 2020, health care organizations around the country reported that they were seeing 50 to 175 times more patients via telehealth than they had before the pandemic. Consumer acceptance of video visits shot up too, going from 11 percent
to 46 percent. With virtual care going mainstream, an industry that generated about $3 billion annually is now poised to make upward of $250 billion a year, according to analysts. A permanent shift could improve access to care for some patients, turn the dial up on better outcomes and lead to a more efficient health care system.

Patricia Schroeder, RN, FAAN

To explore the opportunities this transformation in health care is creating, the College of Nursing launched a Telehealth Virtual Care Accelerator in September 2021, supported by a $1.5 million startup grant from a private family foundation. Its director and principal investigator, Patricia Schroeder, Nurs ’75, Grad ’78, ’97, is working with an advisory board of health care experts from the university and industry to explore opportunities that position Marquette at the front edge of change. The goal is to provide programming, conduct research and develop approaches that offer nursing students of every level a “clear and contemporary perspective” of digital care that’s fundamentally rooted in Jesuit values.

“Marquette wants to be in the lead of preparing a new generation of health care professionals that will help drive digital care to a higher level of personalization and effectiveness,” Schroeder says.

Building expertise

As she steps into the role of director, Schroeder brings with her a wealth of experience from her leadership roles in the college, including as director of strategic initiatives, and elsewhere, such as administrator of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, dean of nursing at Alverno College, chief nursing officer at Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital and Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, and more. 

With the help of the advisory board, Schroeder will fill two additional positions, one focused on education and another focused on research for which Dr. Stacee Lerret, Grad ‘02, ‘11, associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has been tapped. The trio, dedicated exclusively to the success of the accelerator, will work with faculty to enhance the college’s curriculum for nursing students and clinical providers in search of continuing education. They will also expand research and development of innovations in telehealth delivery.

Through conversations with key industry leaders, Schroeder and the advisory board are working out what those enhancements will look like. Some of them will likely focus on the use and impact of the technology itself. Others may address issues such as privacy and trust. For instance, how does a nurse ensure privacy with a patient talking from a family’s living room? How does a clinician establish trust in just a few minutes over a computer screen? New continuing education opportunities will almost certainly evolve to accommodate practicing clinicians.

One thing is certain, Schroeder says: The College of Nursing has a strong foundation upon which to build. The program already provides an evidence-based education that integrates Jesuit pedagogy and has five key characteristics that distinguish it from other programs: a focus on cura personalis, or care for the whole person; engaged, critical thinking; leadership; advocacy; and a commitment to social justice. The intention is to build a curriculum for telehealth within this same framework. Health care workers who are educated through the program — whether new nurses or existing clinicians completing a certification — will be deeply committed to developing personalized and coordinated plans of care for their patients.

The accelerator will have a strategic plan in place this spring, according to Schroeder. She stressed that the $1.5 million startup grant is just the beginning. Marquette is seeking additional private and public funding to meet the accelerator’s goals, which also include connecting other health disciplines to the initiatives.

“We believe ourselves to be a national leader in this transformation of health care, and that positions our students and our faculty to have extraordinary opportunities and to graduate with an ability to lead in the field,” Schroeder says.