During the past few months she has helped create and launch Sheba Beyond, the very first ‘virtual hospital’ in Israel and one of the first in the world. It wasn't by chance that the hospital, rated by Newsweek for two years in a row as one of the ten best in the world, chose this vibrant pediatrician with the kind bedside manner to helm the project that bridges cutting-edge telemedicine innovation with down-to-earth medical care.
"Unlike many who work in telemedicine, I'm not a 'techie' — I come from the world of hands-on medicine, and I think that's my advantage," says Dr. Barkai, who is also the head of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Safra Children's Hospital at Sheba. "Sometimes I need help with the technology aspect, but ultimately, I understand the needs of the doctors, and I grasp the difficulties of the patients."
Sheba Beyond was established in October 2020 in the wake of the second wave of COVID in Israel, but telemedicine services have been available at Sheba for several years. It was the corona crisis, however, that accelerated the process of developing a standardized model for remote medical services — due to patients' refusal to place themselves at risk by entering public spaces, and the realization at Sheba that the world has changed.
"Whereas previously, telemedicine had been part of the ARC (Accelerate, Redesign, Collaborate) Innovation Center, we decided to take it to the next level, both from a clinical point of view, but also in terms of marketing strategy and budgeting. We understood that telemedicine had now come into its own, that it was extensive enough, and important enough, to be designated as an independent entity," says Dr. Barkai.
What this means for the patient, she explains, is that they receive telemedicine services, for hospitalization, rehabilitation, and outpatient clinics, that are not available elsewhere — without having to leave the house.
Dr. Barkai stresses that Sheba Beyond doesn’t simply emulate face-to-face clinical medicine, only remotely. "Our patients have access to the hospital's experienced, top-of-the-line staff of specialists and other staff, but via new models of health care that integrate different disciplines, often employing case managers, so that patients benefit from more holistic treatment. Additionally, telemedicine incorporates the most innovative technologies, enabling doctors to monitor patients via objective data received in real time."
One example of many is the cardiac rehabilitation program. It's been proven that rehabilitation following a heart attack or cardiac surgery is crucial in preventing a repeat episode and death; yet only 40% of cardiac patients in Israel actually access rehabilitation programs offered by hospitals, usually due to lack of time and resources, the distance to the hospital, or even reluctance to exercising in a group setting. The ARC Innovation Center, together with Sheba's Cardiac Rehabilitation Institute, headed by Prof. Robert Klempner, solved all those issues, making exercises accessible to patients via telemedicine wherever they choose – at home, in the neighborhood gym, or in the park, and most importantly, under the personal supervision of a multi-disciplinary team that includes a cardiologist, a nurse, a dietician, an exercise physiologist, and more.
With the help of a designated phone app that includes a step-counter and their personal training schedule as well as a smart watch, the patient's progress can be monitored online. Not only can the medical team provide feedback, such as reminders and encouragement, but they are alerted to any irregularities in monitored data, which is immediately flagged by the program.
After several years of operation, Sheba's remote cardiac rehabilitation program has proven just as effective as rehabilitation in a hospital setting, but with a much greater satisfaction. In fact, the program was so successful that it was approved by the Ministry of Health and is being reimbursed by all the health funds. The model has since been adopted by hospitals across the country.
Sheba Beyond currently operates several outpatient, rehabilitation and hospitalization services via telemedicine, offering patients the best, most advanced medical care, in the comfort and convenience of their home environment.
This article was written in cooperation with Sheba Medical Center.