DPH to Broaden Statewide Telemedicine Network in 2013

September 5, 2013

Originally published Dec. 17, 2012

During a recent appointment, Dr. Anne Patterson, a maternal fetal medicine specialist, spoke with an expectant mother, studied an ultrasound and discussed next steps for care for the woman, whose baby appeared to have an enlarged heart. She even called in a pediatric cardiologist to discuss the fetus' condition. But while Patterson was seated in her metro Atlanta office, her patient sat on an examination table four hours away in Thomasville, Ga.

Patterson has practiced this kind of telemedicine for the past two years, using innovative two-way, real-time videoconferencing technology.

"I can see the patient just like I was standing in the room, and the patient can see me," she said. "I can look at the scan, and then we can go over with the patient all the findings, what her risks are and what her plans should be after that."

As one of only a handful of maternal fetal medicine specialists in the state, most of whom are located in major cities, Patterson said she feels telemedicine is a vital tool for providing care to women who might not otherwise be able to see a doctor in their areas, much less a specialist.

"You can really make a difference for patients in smaller communities who don't have the means to make the trip," she said.

In 2013, this kind of scenario will be available to more Georgians than ever before. The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) plans to transform its statewide telemedicine program into one of the most comprehensive in the nation, driven by DPH Commissioner Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald's vision to expand the network to all of the state's health districts and county health departments.

In January, DPH will begin distributing 13 telemedicine carts to health districts around the state, each equipped with a stethoscope, endoscope and a basic exam camera. The department also will put the finishing touches on the videoconferencing infrastructure it has been consolidating, updating and expanding over the past year.

Dr. Kathryn Cheek, a member of the Board of Public Health, said eventually people will be able to visit the telemedicine hubs in their local health districts to get everything from a dental checkup to a pulmonary exam or an autism evaluation.

"The goal is to remove barriers so all patients can be seen and get care they need," Cheek said in a Dec. 11 Board of Public Health meeting. She noted the technology will also make follow-up care more reliable and improve health outcomes for rural patients.

The need for increased access to care is great. According to the Georgia Board for Physician Workforce, 52 percent of Georgia's physicians are located in five areas that serve just 38 percent of the state's population. The state also ranks 40th in the nation when it comes to adequate distribution of doctors by specialty and geographic location.

Many patients travel for hours to visit doctors across the state, and some providers visit rural areas to treat underserved patients. Cheek noted that in the time these doctors spend traveling, they could see dozens of patients through telemedicine.

The videoconferencing systems have been in place in some rural districts for nearly a year, and the use of those systems has been steadily increasing. In the first quarter of 2012, an average of 15 sites used the system each day. By the end of this year, that number tripled.

"I think that's pretty impressive for one year," Cheek said. "We have really propelled this forward to get where we are."

To expand the network, DPH is recruiting doctors and dentists in the Georgia Volunteer Health Care Program to enroll them in the telemedicine program and get them the necessary audio and video equipment to start seeing patients. The department also hopes to expand the telemedicine network to include doctors in the 80 clinics in the Georgia Free Clinic network.

"We've got a lot of workforce in Georgia, and I think this gives us the opportunity to tap into that all across the state," Cheek said.

In 2013, DPH will also begin training public health staff around the state to operate the equipment on the telemedicine carts and to facilitate patient care. The Office of Training and Workforce Development will offer the first round of training in the third week of January for videoconferencing site coordinators at 2 Peachtree St., the Public Health Labs and in the districts. In February, staff can attend sessions on effective videoconferencing. Upcoming training sessions will be published in PHWeek.

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