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 Tuning In To Telehealth

Provider participation in a telehealth program spreads quality care to rural Georgia.

 

Patient care and wellness have always been defining attributes of Ethica Health & Retirement Communities. When Ethica’s medical director advisory board met in 2009 with key clinical leadership to discuss the need for appropriate specialty care for their patients, a solution was immediately forthcoming.

“One of our directors mentioned a telemedicine program, in which technology and medicine converge to provide state-of-the-art specialty care to patients outside the central coverage area,” says Lucy Rogers, senior vice president of compliance and quality advancement for Ethica.
 
“Discussing the parameters and benefits of such a program, we believed this technology could positively impact the care of our patients in skilled nursing centers.”
 
Pursuing the program in conjunction with the Georgia Partnership for Telehealth, Ethica’s directors identified five centers that could benefit from a telemedicine pilot program.
 
A grant obtained from the partnership combined with a matching grant from Community Health Foundation allowed Ethica to install telemedicine units in five of its clients’ centers in rural areas of Georgia, where doctors in certain specialties are rare.

How It Works

Telemedicine units negate the need for patients to be transferred to specialists’ offices for routine appointments and checkups. Instead, with the aid of a qualified clinical staff member, patients enter an onsite exam room where the unit is located to begin a virtual consultation with an attending physician.
 
A computer screen and a dedicated, secure telephone line allow the physician and patient to easily and confidentially interact as if they were in the room together.
 
“The units are really quite savvy,” Rogers says. “With tremendous magnification capabilities, they allow the doctor to thoroughly examine the patient—from listening to their heartbeat and checking their pulse, to examining wounds and looking for infections,” he adds.

The Benefits

In skilled nursing facilities, especially those in remote areas, patient transfers out of the facility can be problematic. Oftentimes, reliable transportation to shuttle patients to specialist appointments is not available.
 
“One of the reasons we are participating in this pilot program is to enhance the care of our patients, giving them access to a wide array of specialists across the state,” Rogers says.
 
“We also wanted to limit patient transfers out of the skilled nursing center because the patient’s health may be compromised.”
 
The telemedicine program, which has been in place since early 2009, has had a positive impact not only on patients in Ethica Client Centers, but also on citizens in the surrounding communities. Realizing these units are a health benefit to skilled nursing patients, the five facilities in the pilot program have made the units and their specialist-care capabilities available to community patients seeking advanced care.
 
“Although this program is in its infancy, it’s the only one in the state of Georgia,” Rogers says.
 
“We’ve already observed several positive changes, including improved appointment scheduling, enhanced diagnosis and treatment, improved rural health delivery and care, and decreased admittance to the emergency room for skilled nursing patients.
 
“Overall, these units have provided a benefit to our community and transformed the face of our health care.”
 
Lynne Palmer King is vice president, community relations, for the Community Health Foundation, an extension of the Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth. She can be reached at (770) 475-6540 ext. 2405.
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