Mercy plans to open this virtual health care center in 2014.

Mercy plans to expand its ongoing efforts to make specialized services available to patients throughout its system and especially in rural areas by opening a $90 million virtual health care center in Chesterfield, Mo.

The center, which is expected to open in 2014, will connect patients in the Mercy health system to geographically unavailable doctors and nurses at other Mercy hospitals and clinics via telemedicine technology. Mercy serves more than 3 million patients a year in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The system is investing $590 million in technology to get the virtual center online, which will be home to a number of telehealth projects still in the planning stages. It also will bring together Mercy's existing telemedicine programs under one roof.

In the Mercy SafeWatch electronic intensive care unit program, doctors monitor more than 400 beds at 10 hospitals from a St. Louis hub. SafeWatch uses in-room cameras and audio connections so specialists and nurses can provide support to staff at the patients' bedside.

Some Mercy emergency rooms already offer a telestroke program. Patients admitted to the emergency room with stroke symptoms are seen by an on-site doctor and a neurologist who can remotely help diagnose the patient. Other programs envisioned at the center include telepathology, primary care support, nurse on call and remote disease management.