Written by Steve Sandstrom
SIU’s Telehealth Network and Programs has grown from a basic videoconferencing tool to a broad network that will be able to enhance access for rural providers, let urban physicians deliver clinical care over great distances in real time and offers medical students a preview of the way they may deliver care when they become doctors.
Established in 2001, the telehealth videoconferencing systems allow SIU’s doctors and staff to connect and communicate with peers in 145 regional clinics and hospitals in the service region. The School has invested nearly $2.5 million in equipment and training during the past decade, much of it given through federal and state grants.
“Technology changes every year,” says Glenn Groesch, director of SIU’s telehealth programs. “In the last four years we’ve upgraded from standard TVs to plasma monitors to LED LCDs, which have a longer lifespan, use less energy and have a much better picture. We’re getting a more high definition picture using less bandwidth, so it’s more efficient for the network.”
Groesch thinks the iPad is the next developmental breakthrough for the physician’s arsenal. “It’s encrypted, it’s HIPAA compliant, has a better picture and better controls for the technicians. And a doctor can connect 24/7 using it from home. I think it’s going to revolutionize a lot of what we do with videoconferencing.”
The Telehealth Network already has begun improving patient care in the region. Network users hold 48 meetings each week, connecting SIU resources in Springfield to rural areas. For example, few psychiatrists practice in the SIU service area. The network allows regional primary care physicians in two rural hospitals access to consulting psychiatrists via teleconferencing. This helps supplement local services.
Neurology, pediatrics and internal medicine specialties are currently offered within the network. A recent survey of hospitals in SIU’s service region indicated the rural providers’ areas of greatest need: psychiatry, endocrinology, dermatology and stroke treatment. Groesh says telehealth is investigating ways to provide service in these areas as well.
Telehealth has also expanded educational opportunities. In addition to including remote partners in medical Grand Rounds and other continuing medical education, students are now in the loop. Fourth year students have the option of taking a new telemedicine elective. The five week course includes classroom basics on the technology followed by hands on implementation. The students use the hardware and diagnostic tools in the telehealth clinic or in a simulated clinical setting at SIU’s Professional Development Laboratory, working with standardized patients.
Such electives, Groesch says, teach students about stretching limited budgets. “It’s definitely something our doctors are going to see more in the future, as we try to provide services within rural areas without physicians and other specialists.”
Tim Mikesell, one of the students in the inaugural class, agrees. “The elective gave me some insight into how technology might affect our future practices, illustrated some of the barriers to adoption and helped me understand how embracing technology can improve the health care of under served populations.”