March 14, 2017

Wallace, named first medical director of Telehealth, eyes statewide network

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eric wallace bart kellyFrom left: Eric Wallace, M.D., medical director, and Bart Kelly, executive director of Telehealth at UAB.Eric Wallace, M.D., nephrologist and assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, has been named medical director for Telehealth at UAB. Wallace will team with Bart Kelly, who was named executive director of Telehealth in July 2016, to participate in the creation of a statewide telehealth network and in policy development at the local, state and federal levels.

“Our hope for telehealth in Alabama is that it will eliminate geographic barriers to accessing health care by bringing care to the patient instead of the patient to care,” said Wallace, an Anniston, Alabama, native. “We hope it will alleviate socioeconomic barriers to accessing health care by decreasing time off work for both patients and caregivers. Ultimately, I hope it transforms health care delivery in the state and, in doing so, improves health outcomes and people’s lives.”

Telehealth incorporates video technology to facilitate a two-way, real-time interactive communication between the patient and physician or between physicians. Because reaching rural areas of the state is crucial to telehealth efforts, the Alabama Department of Public Health began developing a statewide telehealth network at county health departments in 2015 to work with UAB and other medical partners to build an infrastructure. There are now 19 telehealth-ready ADPH county health department sites in Alabama, and three more are scheduled to go online this month. An additional 19 sites will be added throughout the year.

In Wallace’s role at UAB, he will oversee the implementation plan for telehealth sites across Alabama, utilizing the ADPH county health department sites, multiple physician offices and other hospitals around the state. Wallace also will assist other UAB physicians in the design and creation of telehealth programs. He also will provide education and training for the physicians, nurses, ancillary staff and emergency medical services providers working with the UAB Telehealth network.

“There is a real opportunity to help the people of Alabama,” Kelly said. “If we can provide specialty care in rural communities, it will help enable community physicians to care for their patients locally. If we’re working with rural hospitals, then it helps keep patients there, which helps those hospitals financially as well. It could help reduce readmissions and complications and strengthen UAB’s relations with community providers. We’re excited about the possibilities.”

telemedicineWallace listens to the heartbeat and breathing patterns of patient Mary Epp with his Bluetooth-enabled stethoscope during her telehealth checkup. Read more about this story.As telehealth sites are added across the state, Wallace says, telehealth providers across the health care spectrum at UAB also will be added. He expects the sites to be in the inpatient and outpatient settings, and give physicians the ability to manage patients with sore throats to those in an intensive care unit in other parts of the state.

“We just have to get there one program at a time,” Wallace said.

Wallace came to UAB in 2012 as an assistant professor in nephrology, and now serves as director of home dialysis and co-director of the UAB Fabry and Rare Genetic Disease Clinic. He earned his medical degree and completed his residency at UAB before undertaking a nephrology fellowship at Vanderbilt University.

Wallace’s research has focused on eliminating the geographic and socioeconomic barriers that often prevent patients from accessing specialized care since joining UAB Medicine’s faculty. Primarily, he has concentrated on using telehealth to provide care for patients on home dialysis and with Fabry disease, a rare genetic disorder.

In what is believed to have been a first in the United States, Wallace has enabled telehealth to fully replace comprehensive follow-up visits for peritoneal dialysis patients, and he is studying the effects of this intervention on their quality of life. This achievement, which occurred in 2016, led Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Alabama to add nephrology to its list of specific telehealth conditions it would reimburse — a major accomplishment considering the limited reimbursement opportunities currently established for telehealth in Alabama.

UAB hosted the Alabama Telehealth Summit for the first time in the summer of 2016 as the Alabama Partnership for Telehealth and the Southeastern Telehealth Resource Center looked to build upon statewide momentum to further broaden initiatives. Wallace was a keynote speaker at the summit, and he has used it and other opportunities to tout the position Alabama is in to learn from the successes of other state telehealth initiatives, adapt sustainable programs to our unique needs and become leaders in telehealth. Wallace and Kelly believe Alabama has the resources to achieve what the Alabama Healthcare Needs Assessment identified as the No. 1 health care problem in Alabama — access to care.

“Health care delivery, before restricted by brick and mortar, can now provide care wherever there is a need — and there are needs all over Alabama,” Wallace said. “For many conditions, outcomes are worse in rural areas where there is very little access to care. Telehealth will enable providers at UAB to deliver care in areas where it is needed most, and give us an opportunity to improve health care outcomes for the residents of our state. We are excited to get started.”