August 21, 2008
Telemedicine Expanding in Rural Wyo. Areas
By Michelle Dynes
At least 36 places in the state are connected to video conferencing so that patients can communicate with physicians.
By Michelle Dynes
CHEYENNE - Technology is changing the way patients interact with their doctors.
The congressional interest in telemedicine is at an all-time high, said Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association. He updated state health-care leaders on the progress of telehealth from his office in Washington, D.C. during a statewide video conference Thursday.
The teleconference connected 14 Wyoming hospitals, including Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, as experts used the equipment to discuss the expansion of telemedicine services. The equipment allows patients and physicians to interact as if they were in the same medical room even though they might be hundreds of miles apart.
Linkous said Congress approved a Medicare bill to expand telecommunications in rural areas like Wyoming, where health-care services are scattered.
Local experts say the move makes sense.
Rex Gantenbein, director of the Center for Rural Health Research and Education at the University of Wyoming, said he first encountered telemedicine in the mid-1990s. He worked with a health monitoring program connected with astronauts on the Mir Space Station and thought if the technology could provide health care to patients orbiting the planet, there was no reason it couldn't work in Wyoming.
Today 16 sites are connected with live interactive video conferencing, said Dana Barnett, director of Outreach Services at CRMC. Another 20 sites have computers connected to streaming video.
"At least 36 sites are connected," he added. "(Because of) the rural and frontier nature of our state, video conferencing made a lot of sense."
Hospital staff first used the equipment to host administrative meetings and educational sessions. But earlier this year, CRMC provided a video conference link to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Salt Lake City. Next month, a local urologist will use the technology to follow up with surgery patients.
Telemedicine saves patients from making an extra trip to a distant hospital. It also saves money for the hospitals. Lessons are completed on site instead of losing a staff member for several days because of training. For example, the equipment was used to connect state nurses to a program through the University of Washington without spending any money for travel expenses, Barnett said.
Gantenbein said bandwidth is the main barrier to expanding the network. But last year, the Federal Communications Commission selected Wyoming as one of 69 nationwide projects to improving health telecommunications. The state collected about $850,000 to install telecommunications services throughout Wyoming.
He added that UW will act as a contractor for the project, selecting a vendor in January. The statewide network is scheduled for completion in June 2010.
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