SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sanford Health has launched a pocket-sized device that it hopes will revolutionize how it takes care of many of its patients.

The device, called TytoHome, works with a customer's phone to connect live with both Sanford health care providers. A range of pieces of equipment attaches to it to check ears, heart, breathing and temperature, among other information, and send that information to the provider.

Sanford's goal is to provide virtual exams, making it easy for patients to get checked without visiting a clinic or emergency room.

Sanford partnered with Israeli startup Tyto Care to offer the $299 devices exclusively to patients in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

Jolyn Munson, who works in Sanford's billing department, was one of the first to use the devices through a pilot program launched by the Sioux Falls-based health system. She said she quickly found the device useful when she was able to get her 15-month-old daughter checked out in less than half an hour, despite her being a wiggly toddler, and without any need to leave home.

“It was kind of surprising how the device was a lot smaller than I expected it to be," said Munson, who opted to keep the device after the pilot program ended. "On some of those days when I’m not feeling 100% or one my kids isn’t I’ve been able to just throw it in my purse and bring it wherever I went. I didn’t really recognize it would be that small."

Save time, avoid expensive visits

A visit using the device costs $59 out-of-pocket. The Sanford Health Plan does cover use of the device, although not all health plans do since telehealth coverage laws vary across states.

Sanford Health is no stranger to the telehealth field, including video visits between patients and providers, but it's had its eye on Tyto Care's plans for an all-in-one device, said Meghan Goldammer, Sanford's senior vice president of nursing and clinical services.

"Tytocare was the first FDA-approved all-in-one-device," she said. "That was really the impetus behind getting connected with them.”

Goldammer said data from early users has shown the device is particularly popular for use with children, from newborn to age 17, and the top diagnoses are cough, respiratory, urinary tract and ear infections. The goal is to both meet patients where they're at, but also cut down expensive unnecessary use of clinics and emergency rooms, she said.

"The worse place for a sick kid is actually going into a clinic, with chances of getting more sick, unfortunately, that are there," she said. "The more parents are recognizing that, they’d rather keep their kids at home, they’re home from school, they’d can just do everything they need to do from the comfort of their home."

Sanford Health mans the device around the clock with a Sioux Falls-based hub of 28 health care providers who are licensed in all states from which patients might call. The providers work on rotating shift basis, and also see patients in person, Goldammer said.

Sanford locks down regional use

Sanford Health relationship with Tyto Care includes a $1 million investment in Tyto Care, Goldammer said. David Shulkin, the former Veterans Affairs secretary is both Sanford's chief innovation officer and has a seat on Tyto Care's advisory board.

As part of Sanford's arrangement with Tyto Care, Sanford has the exclusive right to offer the device with patients in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. But it's not the only health system in the region with a Tyto Care arrangement. Avera Health, another regional health system based in Sioux Falls, partnered with Tyto Care to use the device in schools, senior care facilities and clinics in its footprint across the Upper Midwest.

Yet Sanford's geographical exclusivity is a relatively rare arrangement, said David Bardan, Tyto Care's vice president of provider solutions.

Bardan, a native of Worthington, Minn., said the company grew comfortable with the arrangement over several pilot tests with Sanford, which bills itself as the largest provider of rural health care in the nation.

"The benefit of having that device in the home and do some of your work — even the follow-ups, as well, from these visits — is a critical aspect, and obviously can resonate well with folks who reside in the more rural parts of the country, like the Dakotas," he said.

The TytoHome device is available via Sanford on its website, from or via retailer Best Buy online and in some stores.