Thursday, July 07, 2016

Telemedicine helps stroke victims in rural New Mexico get treatment from urban specialists

Doctors in rural New Mexico are turning to telemedicine to treat stroke patients during the crucial hours after the incident, Leah Todd reports for "Small Towns, Big Change," a six-month series by seven news organizations in Colorado and New Mexico. "Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in New Mexico, and a leading cause of adult disability. In 2014 alone, 822 New Mexicans died from a stroke—more than those who died from drug overdoses and homicides combined." (University of New Mexico Department of Neurosurgery photo: Video feed helps treat rural stroke patients)

"A life-saving procedure called a clot retrieval, for instance, is only effective within about eight hours of a stroke’s onset. A drug called tPA, which dissolves stroke-inducing blood clots, must start acting within about four," Todd writes. Howard Yonas, a neurosurgeon at the University of New Mexico, said "only a tiny fraction of rural stroke victims eligible for the life-saving blood-thinner actually get it. Instead, many rural doctors opt to fly patients by helicopter to the state’s only Level 1 trauma center in Albuquerque, a costly and sometimes unnecessary measure that consumes precious hours."

Medical professionals are using a program, Access to Critical Cerebral Support Services, that was created in 2014 with a $15.1 million grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services "to loop Albuquerque specialists into rural emergency rooms by video and immediately share brain scans before deciding to transfer the patient," Todd writes. In the two years since the program was initiated hospitals have seen significant results. One rural hospital has reduced the number of brain trauma victims it sends to Albuquerque from 50 percent to 6 percent, and another rural hospital has more than doubled the number of patients given tPA.

So far nine rural hospitals use the system, with five more set to join, Todd writes. The move is cost effective, especially now that telemedecine is more common. Dale Alverson, who runs UNM’s Center for Telehealth said that "In the late 1990s, a telemedicine setup cost about $100,000 to install. Today, a comparable outfit costs less than $10,000." (Read more)

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