Local hospitals are increasingly turning to interactive telecommunications to allow doctors to quickly diagnose patients and prescribe life-saving medications in emergency situations.
Premier Health Partners recently introduced its Telemedicine Stroke Network at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown and Good Samaritan Hospital and plans to roll out the two-way video conferencing network next month at Miami Valley Hospital locations in Dayton, Centerville and Jamestown.
By summer, all four Premier hospitals, including Upper Valley Medical Center, will be using the network, hospital officials said.
Meanwhile, Kettering Health Network has been using its SPOT (Stroke Program Optical Telecommunication) robot since last October to remotely connect members of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s stroke team to patients at Fort Hamilton Hospital in Hamilton.
SPOT “offers telerobotic acute stroke evaluation by the University of Cincinnati stroke team within 20 minutes of arrival at Fort Hamilton’s ER in order to help determine the need for (the clot-busting medication) TPA,” according to Kettering spokeswoman Elizabeth Long.
Both hospital networks maintain stroke teams at individual hospitals, but the telecommunications systems allow those neurologists and cardiologists to see and speak with patients at hospitals when they are not physically present, saving valuable time.
“I can’t be everywhere at once. If I had to drive to a hospital, it would take at least 20 to 25 minutes to get there,” said Dr. Jacob Kitchener, a neurologist and one of Premier’s six on-call stroke specialists who uses a laptop computer equipped with a high-definition camera and headphones to communicate with emergency room doctors and patients in real time.
The technology promises to dramatically improve survival rates for stroke victims, especially those suffering strokes caused by blood clots who must be treated with medications like TPA within the first few hours of an attack.
“The quicker you give it, the more effective it is,” Kitchener said. “It has to be given within three hours for most folks.”
Telecommunications technologies have a variety of medical applications in addition to stroke diagnosis and treatment, including remote patient monitoring and home health care.
Such practices are at the forefront of a new era in medicine referred to as “Telehealth,” which is expected to blossom in Ohio and the rest of the nation as health care providers seek ways to keep pace with the medical needs of an aging population and millions of new patients signing up for health insurance next year under the national health care reform law, said Reem Aly, an analyst at the Health Policy Institute of Ohio.
“Telehealth may help health care providers leverage resources that are already in use so they can better meet the demands of those patients with limited access to care, especially those living in more rural areas,” Aly said. “There are a number of studies that have indicated Telehealth can help bridge access to care, and I think there is a lot of room for growth in Ohio.”
By 2025, the United States will need nearly 52,000 additional primary care physicians to meet U.S. health care needs, based on projections published late last year in the Annals of Family Medicine. That number doesn’t include cardiologists and other specialists already spread thin by the rapid rise chronic illnesses requiring specialized care.
But insurance coverage restrictions have limited the widespread adoption of Telehealth services, according to Aly, who said many private insurers won’t reimburse physicians and hospitals for services not rendered by a doctor in person. And government programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, offer only limited coverage for such services, she said.
“Reimbursement is one of the biggest impediments to Telehealth, and changing that will require changing legislative policy on the payer side,” Aly said.
Congress is now considering proposed legislation that would increase federal support and payments for Telehealth services nationwide and prevent private insurers from excluding covered benefits from reimbursement solely because the benefit was provided by telecommunications.
A similar law was reintroduced in the Ohio House of Representatives earlier this month.