Monday, October 12, 2015

Telemedicine program launched in rural Georgia can serve as a model for areas that lack hospitals

Officials in rural Hancock County, Georgia, (Wikipedia map) hope that technology can provide much-needed healthcare and boost the economy in an impoverished area with 9,000 residents, "no transportation system, no hospital and insufficient alternative care to treat residents plagued with chronic illnesses," Virginia Anderson reports for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Officials said the initiative can serve as a model for other areas whose economies have been hurt by hospital closings.

Anderson writes in a separate story, "The Hancock Rural Healthcare Initiative, an ambitious telemedicine program, equips ambulances with computers, cameras, electrocardiogram leads and 4G cards that allow EMTs to share patient information in real time with hospital emergency room doctors in neighboring counties. The EMT can move the equipment from the ambulance into the patient’s home, as needed. The ER doctor can then determine how best to treat the patient—whether at home or en route to the hospital."

"Hancock isn’t devoid of care for chronic or occasional maladies," Anderson writes. "There is a federally qualified health center in Sparta whose nurse practitioners provide treatment during basic office hours, regardless of a patient’s insurance status or ability to pay. But the health center doesn’t have a doctor. And since many people in Hancock lack transportation, even a Sparta-based facility can be hard to reach, especially for someone in a wheelchair."

"The telemedicine program was facilitated by a special waiver agreement for Hancock County that allows EMTs to be reimbursed for treating patients in consultation with doctors," Anderson writes. The program, launched this summer with a grant of $105,000 from the Georgia Department of Community Health, can also cut down on unnecessary trips to the emergency room. "About two-thirds of ambulance trips from Hancock to nearby counties’ hospitals are for non-emergencies," officials said. "In effect, the ambulance becomes a rolling hospital, which can prove particularly beneficial in cases involving a stroke, a heart attack or serious injury."

Sate Sen. David Lucas (D-Macon), whose district includes Hancock, said "the telemedicine program is a tool for economic development that the county desperately needs," Anderson writes. He told her, “Employers can get a $3,500 tax credit for every employee they hire, but we can’t get them here if you don’t have health care." With the backing of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and other rural legislators, a waiver was built "that allows EMTs to be reimbursed by Medicaid and Medicare for treating patients in Hancock County." (Read more)

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