Steven Ziemba, director of clinical research at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, said with Phoebe’s location and resources, it would be a natural move for the hospital to establish itself as the major telemedical hub for the region
ALBANY — Medical technology is busting out all over, especially in Georgia, a leader in the fast-paced field of rural telemedicine.
Imagine you’re at home when you have a stroke. Suspecting as much, you drive to a nearby clinic. There’s a family doctor, but no specialist for 150 miles. The treatment window for strokes is about three hours; any longer could result in tragedy.
Thanks to the work of pioneers like neurologist David Hess at the Medical College of Georgia, your chances for expert treatment are good. The clinic GP unlimbers state-of-the-art equipment, and a video and data link are established with the college or some other medical hub. Suddenly, via a special monitor, you’re face to face with a physician who will interpret vital signs, medical history and other information to diagnose your stroke and order the clot-busting drug, tPA.
According to www.gpb.org, Georgia is the “buckle of the stroke belt,” with high incidences of diabetes as well. Cardiac, trauma, obstetrics ... almost any kind of patient might benefit from remote, telemedical techniques.
The engine of Georgia’s telemedicine is the Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth, a nonprofit organization based in Waycross. According to the GPT, the program started in 2005 after John Oxendine, then Georgia’s insurance commissioner, secured an $11.5 million grant to set up a telemedical system in 40 clinics and hospitals. The sustaining nonprofit partnership now has around 185 doctors providing consultations in 40 separate specialties.
“Right now, there are over 300 locations in the state where you can go and see your primary care physician or a specialist,” GPT CEO Paula Guy said in a recent article on www.governing.com. “If you live in a small town, instead of driving two hours, you would just drive to a clinic where you have a telemedicine system and see the doctor there.
They’re able to look in ears, eyes, nose and throat, (hear) chest sounds, lung sounds, (view) radiology images — all of these things can be shared and looked at in any of these locations.”
In the governing.com article, Guy described an affordable Bluetooth stethoscope through which, with the touch of a button, heart and lung sounds can be monitored anywhere in the world.
Guy said that while extensive technology carts are $35,000 to $45,000 each, clinics can set themselves up with as little as a laptop computer and a joining fee of $8,500.
According to John Linkous, the CEO of the American Telemedical Association, there’s plenty of telemedicine practiced right now, in even the smallest of clinics — people just don’t know about it.
“Probably the biggest application is radiology,” Linkhous said. “You could be going to ‘Joe and Frank’s Radiology Clinic’ or somewhere. It doesn’t matter. The assistant makes sure you’re fitted in, and you never see the radiologist. As long as the reading is by a trained, licensed radiologist, there’s no reason to care.”
Linkous said the most important thing is that more and more people in remote areas are getting easy access to critical and ongoing care, a win/win proposition for both patients and providers.
“The federal government is keeping track of how many people leave a hospital then have to go back in a few days,” Linkous said. “Hospitals will be penalized for that. Often it’s the hospital’s fault. We need to do remote patient monitoring. It’s good for the patients and saves an enormous amount of money.”
Hometown medical giant Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital has at least a start in telemedicine. According to Steven Ziemba, Phoebe’s director of clinical research, the hospital is close to the end of a telemedical study on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Financed by a Defense Department grant in 2009, the study examines PTSD treatment utilizing telemonitor carts, through which doctor and patient can view and speak with each other in real time. If treatment successes at least match those of actual human contact, it can mean a breakthrough in cost and convenience.
“One of the modes for treatment of PTSD is something called cognitive behavioral therapy,” Ziemba said. “Treatment requires more than just voice contact. There is a need to focus on certain images and events. Using high-end video conferencing equipment — carts with large monitors — doctors can zoom in to look at certain expressions made by patients.”
The study, which involves Phoebe medical facilities at Phoebe East, Phoebe West, and Phoebe clinics in Ashburn, Sylvester, Lee County and Camilla, will be complete in August, Ziemba said, and he expects Phoebe will then move toward other telemedical ventures. However, he’s not aware of particular projects planned.
“My focus has just been on the study,” Ziemba said. “I’m not sure if there is other work on telemedicine going on in other parts of Phoebe. There might be.”
Ziemba said that comprehensive rural telemedicine in Southwest Georgia could be accomplished either by contracting with one of the many private companies offering the services or with Phoebe establishing itself as the natural technological and medical hub.
“With Phoebe’s location and resources at its disposal, to me, if you want to set up a telemedicine network with Phoebe hospitals, that’s a ready-made network,” Ziemba said. “To what extent an outside network might be used is something we would need to explore.”