VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Saving Hoosier lives depends on telemedicine technology

If you find yourself in need of advanced medical care, the Indianapolis area represents one of the best places to live.

Superb resources at the nationally ranked Indiana University Hospital, St. Vincent, the Riley Hospital for Children and a whole host of other Indianapolis
based medical facilities will effectively meet the challenge of providing worldclass health services.

But if you live or work outside the capital city, securing life-saving services may be a different matter. The last national census disclosed some disturbing facts: a full 66 of the Hoosier state’s 92 counties are federally designated as medically underserved areas or areas with shortages of key health professionals. Essentially a third of Indiana’s population faces the potential life-threatening challenge of receiving adequate medical attention.

Uneven distribution

While we may rightfully celebrate Hoosier medical achievements in Indy, too many Hoosiers face the dual challenges of the real-time availability of critical healthcare resources and improving the overall health quality of life.

Few would question the fact that, to one degree or another, critical medical services are unevenly distributed throughout Indiana. Thankfully, a proven solution to this challenge already exists: telemedicine.

Citing research from dozens of medical professionals, the Purdue-based Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering stated last year that “Telemedicine applications offer the promise of improved access to care and tremendous cost savings … and in some cases even save countless lives in Indiana.”

Synchronous telemedicine-where doctors and patients can meet online in real time-offers the capacity to rapidly extend critical medical resources throughout the state. The good news? It’s a proven technology and it’s already partially deployed.

Riley Hospital for Children and St. Vincents have already pioneered active programs that extend the professional acumen of their top physicians and experts throughout the state. Using fiber-based connectivity, Bloomington Hospital has brought life-saving cancer treatment to rural areas of southern Indiana.

Properly administered, the life-saving power of telemedicine is unquestioned. Citing the potential positive impact of telemedicine in all branches of medical practice, the Regenstrief Center put it this way: “The day may be approaching where failure to deploy a telemedicine consult constitutes lack of due care.”

With only 13 percent of Indiana active
care physicians living and working in rural areas, telemedicine provides an obvious and proven answer. But challenges remain.

Broadband critical

Telemedicine won’t work on a dial-up modem. Stutter-step video transmission doesn’t achieve the necessary real-time communications quality required for patient consultation. Pixilation and reduced image quality can lead doctors to shun transmitted images, as imperfect gray-scale x-ray images could produce a potential misdiagnosis.

High-speed and secure fiber-based connectivity resolves those issues. High-quality x-rays pass back and forth at the speed of light, and gigabytes of encrypted critical patient data can be transferred and downloaded in mere seconds.

In the past, as the Regenstrief Center outlined in its “Telemedicine in Indiana” report, affordable high-speed broadband was a critical obstacle. Thankfully, that barrier is dissolving with the in-hospital proliferation of T-1 lines and fiber-based connectivity that allows high-speed interactivity and transmission of secure data.

Major cost savings from telemedicine emerge in other ways. Across the state, dozens of police officers today must take the time to transport inmates from rural county jails to counseling centers in urban areas for court-mandated treatment. With mental-health-focused telemedicine, these treatment sessions can take place through
secure links, providing direct two-way contact with psychologists and behavioral professionals at a much-reduced cost minus transportation expenses and required law enforcement supervision.

Many Hoosier companies, including Smithville Digital, are ready to meet these challenges. Federal funding for high-speed fiber-based broadband exists, but unfortunately the Hoosier state has remained under-funded in this critical category.

Of the $400 million available from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, Indiana only brought home about $168,000 for telemedicine from 2002-2004.

The benefits of telemedicine-including the outright saving of Hoosier lives-are proven. Apart from the technology infrastructure issues, a new culture of telemedicine needs to be introduced in ongoing physician training and in the curriculum of medical universities.

Recent concerns about the in-hospital security of patient records have inadvertently brought about undue apprehension. Some professionals possess unease in transmitting records to rural facilities practicing telemedicine. However, technology protocols and privacy regulations provide for fully secure means to transmit records safely. It happens everyday, and where it happens, lives are demonstrably better.

McCarty is president of Smithville Digital, a broadband technology company serving the Indiana region between West Lafayette and the West Gate @ Crane Technology Park. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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