Technology allows providers in one community to serve patients miles awayYou can shop, go to school, and now you can even visit your doctor through the computer. Area hospitals are implementing technology that allows patients to communicate with their doctors online.
By: Tracy Frank, Forum News Service
FARGO – You can shop, go to school, and now you can even visit your doctor through the computer.
Area hospitals are implementing technology that allows patients to communicate with their doctors online. Some even have the capacity to conduct full office appointments by way of high-tech monitors, cameras and specialized stethoscopes.
Both Altru Health System in Grand Forks and the Fargo VA Healthcare System have the ability to conduct doctors’ appointments with patients who aren’t in the same room or even the same town.
Sanford Health has tele-appointments available in Sioux Falls, S.D., as does Essentia Health in Duluth. Sanford is working to bring the service to its Fargo locations in the future.
Through a system of video cameras and monitors, providers at the Fargo VA can treat veterans at clinics throughout the state. They even have the capability to look in patients’ ears and examine a mole or growth.
“The cameras are so good, they’re just unbelievable,” said Margaret Nelson, Fargo VA Telehealth manager.
Doctors can also listen to someone’s lungs and heart through an electronic stethoscope, she said.
“A lot of times for our veterans, especially our World War II veterans, travel is not very easy for them,” Nelson said. “Coming to a central location to have things done is just not a choice.”
Altru also has a service called telemedicine that uses secure, interactive video and audio connections between Altru specialists and patients and providers in other communities.
It helps expand services in rural areas and reduces travel time for patients, said Marsha Waind, Altru’s manager of regional services who leads its telemedicine initiative.
X-rays can be taken in one community and read in another. Pharmacists can review medications from miles away. Even someone with an infectious disease or in palliative care can meet with a doctor without driving hours for an appointment, Waind said.
Patients go to a clinic, hospital or nursing home near them that is set up with the proper equipment and connect with an Altru doctor in Grand Forks.
Last year Altru performed 1,200 telemedicine visits. This year, it’s on track to perform more than 2,000, Waind said.
Telemedicine visits are billed the same as an office visit, she said.
“We connect with sites that are not Altru sites,” she said. “We are very interested in supporting patient-care rurally.”
Telemedicine can help solve the problem of doctor shortages in rural areas, Waind said. They are also starting to use it to provide follow-up care for local patients who might be seeing a doctor in the Minneapolis area.
“It’s a bit of a challenge to get a provider to work in smaller, rural communities,” said Rollie Blixt, Fargo VA facility Telehealth coordinator. “Even if they want to, there’s a housing shortage in some communities.”
Psychiatrists, who are in short supply in rural areas, can hold group meetings with people from several different communities at once, he said, adding that it looks a bit like the TV show Hollywood Squares with each person occupying his or her own box on the monitor.
Veterans can also connect with VA providers from throughout the country. It’s especially useful for snowbirds who winter in warmer states, she said.
Patient surveys show it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, Blixt said.
The program could be benefiting patients’ health, too. Diabetic veterans using the telehealth program are showing improved lab tests and blood pressures, Nelson said.
The VA is working on allowing doctors to connect with patients right in their own homes through webcams and computers, Blixt said.
Another service called remote patient monitoring uses special equipment to monitor the vital signs of someone with a chronic disease. It alerts medical staff to changes in their condition and allows some patients to stay home instead of being hospitalized, Waind said.
There are about 300 veterans in North Dakota on the VA’s version of the service, called in-home telehealth monitoring. It can be used to monitor a variety of conditions, from congestive heart failure to post traumatic stress disorder.
Another 200 veterans are waiting to be enrolled in the program, Nelson said.
In Ada, Minn., telemedicine is giving emergency services a boost.
Through the use of high-tech equipment that includes high-resolution cameras, microphones and an electronic stethoscope, health care providers at Essentia Health in Ada can connect with emergency room doctors at Essentia Health in Fargo to get a second opinion on critically ill or trauma patients.
Doctors might be able to avoid sending patients to Fargo, or if they have to be transported, the Fargo doctor will already be familiar with the patient and her illness or injury, said Steve Spaeth, director of nursing at Essential Health in Ada.
“This is huge for patient care to have expertise in Fargo right in our ER room with us,” he said.